Grand Traverse Resort becomes part of gaming empire

By Kiel Christianson, Senior Writer

TRAVERSE CITY, Mich. -- Anishinaabeg in the Ottawa and Chippewa languages means "the people." As of March 31, 2003, what many consider Michigan's premier full-service, luxury golf resort, the Grand Traverse Resort and Spa, came under control of the people, when KSL Recreation, Inc. sold the resort and its three highly regarded golf courses to the Grand Traverse Band of Ottawa and Chippewa Indians for $66.4 million. The sale marks the first time in the resort's nearly 25-year history that it has been locally owned.

The Band's purchase of the resort is not only big news in Traverse City, but also a significant event nationally. In an interview with Andrew Bateman, Executive Vice President and General Manager of the Grand Traverse Resort and Spa, a native Londoner who has become an integral part of the Band's management team, stressed how historic the purchase is.

"[The Band] has made history again," said Bateman. "They were the first tribe to get federal recognition in 1980, and they began gaming in 1984." What began in 1984 as the Super Bingo Palace has grown into Grand Traverse Entertainment, which comprises the Leelanau Sands Casino, Turtle Creek Casino, the casinos' amenities, and now the resort.

As far as The Band or Bateman know, this is the first instance of a tribal purchase of an existing full-service golf resort, as opposed to building their own facilities.

Win, win, win

The gaming industry is becoming increasingly crowded, with new Native and non-native casinos opening throughout the country. According to Bateman, golf is essential to secure the Grand Traverse Band's position as a major player in Michigan and nationally. "From Las Vegas to Mississippi, casino operators have access to golf," said Bateman. "We're up against stiff competition on the gaming front. We now have many more markets -- golf, conventions, and the [natural attractions] of the Traverse City area -- which gives us back an advantage, even though we're more removed from some other areas, like Detroit."

Bateman stresses that The Band not only bought the resort, but also the services of "the team that came along with it. We looked long and hard at the group that came along with the facility, and they were a big reason that we were so pleased to buy the resort." By retaining much of the management team, continuity in service and quality was assured.

Chris Bussey, Assistant Executive Officer of the Grand Traverse Band Economic Development Corporation, explained in an exclusive telephone interview the motivation for buying the resort: "We had actually looked at the resort many times in the last ten years. It has always made sense for us to own it. We were already one of the main employers in the region, and now with the resort, we are the second largest employer."

Bussey points out that The Grand Traverse Band is also one of the largest property tax payers in the region, "and very proudly so." In addition, 2 percent of all slot machine revenues are returned to the community via a mini-grant program, to offset the costs of larger police force, increased traffic, and so forth.

"We feel that we're an essential element to northern Michigan entertainment," explains Bussey. "That's why we changed our name to Traverse Bay Entertainment, because now -- especially with the resort -- people come to us for so much more than just gaming. Lots of families come to the area for the natural beauty. We're adding different dimensions."

Andrew Bateman concurs. "This area is so gorgeous, but it doesn't get the national exposure," said Bateman. "We can use these facilities to establish the whole area nationally." This is a point that the community at large appears to recognize. According to Bateman, the transaction was "very well received" by local business leaders, who have been "very supportive. They even assisted in facilitating the renewal of the resort's liquor license."

Tracy Kurtz, of Swope-Kurtz Marketing, the firm that handles the marketing for the casinos, describes The Band as "good neighbors," who give far more than the 2 percent of gaming profits required by law back to the community. "The Band leadership is committed to bringing world-famous shows to town," says Kurtz. "Last year Cirque de Sole was here, and this year the Imperial Circus of China is coming. These are family shows where kids are welcome and the ticket prices are affordable."

In addition, the Traverse City Chamber of Commerce is working hand-in-hand with The Band, according to Chris Bussey. "They see us as a business leader. As do the local townships, who we're working with to assess their needs and help with development plans."

So the sale of the resort is a "win" for The Band, a "win" for the local area. What about KSL? Why did they decide to sell?

"We wanted to focus more on our other properties," said Sam Barton, KSL Corporate Controller in a telephone interview. "Grand Traverse was our only northern resort." In an open bidding process, "The Band's offer was the best," says Barton. "And I think they're really the best owners. They were looking at building their own resort, but it didn't make sense to have two of the same type of properties so close to each other."

Plans for Improvement

Andrew Bateman promises extensive improvements for the resort in the near future, though return guests and golfers won't notice any dramatic differences, at least at first. "Mechanical, electrical, and plumbing upgrades began right away. And we spent nearly a quarter-million dollars on repaving the cart paths on The Bear. Beginning in the next fiscal year, we' ll begin room renovations, along with the lobby and Trillium restaurant."

According to Director of Golf Tom McGee, plans are in the offing for new tee boxes on The Bear to help bridge the almost 900-yard gap between the championship and men's tees and lengthen the course from the tips.

Bateman also has a personal wish: "We have a 168-acre parcel of land on which I would like to develop a skeet-shooting range." By adding such a range to the resort activities, a sort of common-man's triathlon package could be devised, combining shooting, golf, and fly-fishing. "We are an accredited Orvis lodge," says Bateman. "Orvis [the international fly-fishing association] has named the Boardman River a blue ribbon trout stream, one of the few in the nation with wild trout."

According to Chris Bussey, The Band has several ideas for incorporating the resort into their other holdings. "In the future," Bussey speculates, "gaming might also work on the resort property."

The Band has also found a number of ways to combine renovations with community involvement. "We purchased all new exercise equipment for the [resort's] health club," says Bussey, "and we donated all of the old equipment to community elder health care facilities."

In every sense of the word, then, it appears that the Grand Traverse Resort is now owned by the people of Traverse City.

For more information, contact:
Grand Traverse Resort
Tel: (800)-748-0303

Kiel ChristiansonKiel Christianson, Senior Writer

Kiel Christianson has lived, worked, traveled and golfed extensively on three continents. As senior writer and equipment editor for, he has reviewed courses, resorts, and golf academies from California to Ireland, including his home course, Lake of the Woods G.C. in Mahomet, Ill. Read his golf blog here and follow him on Twitter @GolfWriterKiel.

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