The Lac Courte Oreilles tribe has reeled in a big one.
The tribe, whose reservation is just outside of Hayward in Sawyer County, has completed the purchase of Big Fish Golf Club, the heralded Pete Dye-designed course that sits within view of the tribe’s Sevenwinds Casino and other businesses. The purchase price was $1.1 million.
Jason Schlender, vice chairman of the Lac Courte Oreilles Tribal Governing Board, said discussions about buying the golf course had been ongoing for some time but picked up pace last summer when the tribe signed an intent to purchase. The deal was completed on March 15.
The goals in acquiring Big Fish are to drive more visitors to the nearby casino and create more jobs for tribal members. In acquiring the golf course, the tribe also gains ownership of a large parcel of undeveloped property adjoining current reservation land that also offers opportunities down the road.
Adding golf to gaming opportunities is increasingly common among Native American tribes nationally. Last year, a Minneapolis consultant who works with tribal governments on such initiatives reported that 70 tribes in 20 states now own or operate more than 100 golf courses, including six in Minnesota, five in Michigan and two — now three, with LCO — in Wisconsin.
In an interview last fall, Ernest Stevens, a member of the Oneida Nation of Wisconsin and chairman of the National Indian Gaming Commission, called the trend toward offering both golf and gaming “a real economic boon, not just for the tribes but for the local communities. The golf family is a natural for our gaming world, and vice-versa.”
That’s exactly what the Lac Courte Oreilles are hoping for in Hayward. The tribe had been approached in the past about buying Big Fish, but at that time the price was over $4 million and beyond the tribe’s ability, Schlender said. When negotiations resumed last June the lower price made the purchase both doable and attractive.
“That’s probably another reason we went for it,” he said, and the course’s reputation as a must-play destination for serious golfers was added incentive. “That’s the other thing that’s a benefit to us, that we tell people it’s a Pete Dye course. People who are into golf know (what that means).”
While the tribe was considering making an offer, Schlender visited a number of other golf courses that were owned by, or often played, by other Native American communities, including Pine Hills GC, owned by the Stockbridge-Munsee tribe near Gresham; Black Bear Casino Resort in Carlton, Minnesota, owned by the Fond du Lac band of Ojibwe Indians; Mystic Lake Casino Hotel in the Twin Cities, owned by the Shakopee Sioux; and several others.
“We talked a lot with their management” about the advantages and challenges of adding golf to other offerings, Schlender said. “The vast majority just said it was a great (addition), that the way they look at it is not something that’s extremely profitable (but) it’s about getting more people into their casinos.
“If we do (make a profit), great, but our intent is to provide another amenity for our casino.”
The course will open when weather permits. A grand opening for the new Big Fish will take place May 11.
Big Fish has long been thought of as two courses in one. The front nine is links-like, largely flat, open and treeless, while the back nine has rugged elevation changes and winds through a forest setting. The additional land that comes with the golf course will allow the tribe to, in essence, expand the boundary of their reservation, Schlender said. While no plans have been finalized, the tribe is considering developing income-generating housing such as condos or hotels for visitors who come to play at the casino, fish Hayward’s many lakes, snowmobile in winter or take part in the popular Birkebeiner ski race each February.
A job fair was held in early April to staff the new operation. Tribal members will get a preference in hiring, and already some are being trained for roles in maintaining the course, working in the clubhouse and restaurant and other positions. Schlender said the course has been in good condition in recent years — good weather was helpful in that regard — and he expects there will be few changes right away in course management. Already, he said, a number of tournaments and other events have been scheduled for weekends in May, which could signal a strong start for the new ownership.
“I suppose it’s like anything, when you spend a million dollars in Indian Country (some people get nervous)," Schlender said. "But we’re excited. It’s an exciting opportunity.”