This is the story of how a community rallied around a municipal golf course and saved it from closing. It’s the story of how government officials listened to their constituents. It’s the story of a family stepping up to buy a course that has been losing money for at least a decade.
All of which makes it a very rare story, indeed.
On Tuesday, the Waukesha County Board unanimously approved the sale of Wanaki Golf Course in Menomonee Falls to Storm family members Tim and Laura (Storm) Sullivan and their son-in-law, Scott Schaefer. The Storm family has owned and operated golf courses and practice facilities in the greater Milwaukee area for 68 years.
But if not for a remarkable grass-roots movement, if not for the rallying cry of golfers who have patronized Wanaki for years and non-golfers who live near the course and appreciate the green space, the sale would not have happened.
In fact, Wanaki would have closed after the 2019 season and Waukesha County, acting in the best interest of taxpayers, likely would have sold the property to a developer. Fifty years of golf history would be bulldozed. Fairways and greens would be replaced by a subdivision.
Instead, the Storm family vows to turn around a failing business model. A deed restriction called for the buyer to run Wanaki as a golf course for four years; the Storm family voluntarily extended it to eight.
“They very generously said, ‘We will keep it a golf course for at least eight years,’ ” said Joe Vachuska, a co-founder of Save Wanaki, a grass-roots group that fought to save the course. “The Storm family brings a long tradition of golf excellence in southeastern Wisconsin. We’re looking forward to a bright future partnering with them.”
Last July, Wanaki golfers were stunned to learn that the course was set to close after the 2019 season after County Executive Paul Farrow did not include funding for its operation in the 2020 budget. Though the course had run annual deficits ranging from $41,000 to $243,000 over the previous decade, the announcement that it would close came without warning.
Golfers did not take the news sitting down. They mobilized, formed Save Wanaki, bombarded county supervisors with emails and phone calls and packed meetings. A petition on change.org drew more than 6,000 signatures. As a result, the Waukesha County Board voted to keep the course under county operation for one more year when it passed the 2020 budget in November.
“The coolest part of this whole thing is just how the community rallied together for golf. That doesn’t happen very often,” said Jonathan LaVoy, who lives near Wanaki and has become the de facto voice of area residents. “Look at what was going to happen. The course was dead on arrival last year. The county said, ‘We’re shutting it down at the end of the year.’
“Literally, a grass-roots group of people basically got it saved. That’s such a cool thing, that the community rallied like that.”
Vachuska was the face of Save Wanaki, working tirelessly behind the scenes to build a coalition of like-minded golfers. He was a fixture at meetings, forwarded “hundreds if not thousands” of emails to county officials and was calm and polite but doggedly persistent in his interactions with them.
“Joe did such a good job,” LaVoy said. “He literally put in hundreds of hours of work and went to all these meetings to support everyone else. It wasn’t just him, but he was the voice of a lot of people. It was impressive that the government listened and it was impressive that the people followed through.”
The reward was the Storm family stepping up and buying the course. Terms of the sale were not announced, but the 148-acre course, which opened in 1970, was listed at $1.52 million.
“It’s a golf course that we’ve played for a long time,” said Schaefer, who owns restaurants in Milwaukee and Shorewood. “We went out there and viewed the space and we thought it was a great opportunity and a fair value, and we think we can run it better than what Waukesha was doing as a county.
“We believe with our touch of running golf courses and driving ranges and my touch of running bars and restaurants, I can put a food and beverage program together for (the Sullivans) and they can run the golf course side of things. We’re really excited. The support we’ve had from Wanaki and different groups, we know there’s a very high level of interest in keeping it a golf course and we want to provide that for many, many years to come.”
The County Board’s approval to sell the course to the Storm family beat a deadline by one week. If Wanaki had not sold by June 30, the county would have had to sell the property for the highest price and best use. According to Vachuska, there were nine bids, including offers by “several” residential developers.
Save Wanaki organized an email campaign to urge the county not to approve the sale to a developer.
“We don’t know exactly what their bid was but we know it was a solid offer and the supervisors had a tremendous amount of pressure to keep it as a course,” LaVoy said. “It just seemed like it was really a perfect fit for the course. We couldn’t be happier.”
Waukesha County will operate Wanaki through Nov. 1. Schaefer said the Storm family would begin to make improvements in 2021, starting with upgraded food and beverage service.
“We think the golf course is actually in great shape,” he said. “We just want to keep it up to the level it’s at now. We definitely want to expand on the food and beverage side, have better food and then also we want to get a liquor license and maybe build a bar. We want to bring those two together. Right now, we think it has a great golf program but it lacks on the other side.”
The Storm family owns and operates two executive courses – Brookfield Hills Golf Course and Missing Links in Mequon – and the nine-hole St. John’s Northwestern Golf Course in Delafield. The family also owns Storm’s Golf Range, with locations in Oconomowoc and Brookfield.
Schaefer owns Milwaukee Brat House, with locations in downtown Milwaukee and Shorewood, and Jack’s American Pub in Milwaukee.
“They’re absolutely wonderful people and we just thought they had the best intentions and were the best fit for the course,” LaVoy said. “They told me their goal is to try to develop it into a nice restaurant and bar facility and improve the course and make it profitable, which is I think what everyone wants.
“They have the golf background and the restaurant background and the bar background. What a perfect mix of people.”
The Storm family soon will own Wanaki. But it’s clear that a lot of people are invested in it.