Montana combines cowboy lifestyle, modern amenities

Rock Creek Cattle Company rose quickly to No. 1 on Golfweek’s Best Residential Courses list.

Rock Creek Cattle Company rose quickly to No. 1 on Golfweek’s Best Residential Courses list.

So a wild bear walks into a lodge.

No, that’s not the start of a joke. A few hours before I arrived here at Yellowstone Club, a bear walked through the front door of the club’s Warren Miller Lodge and moseyed up to the breakfast buffet. He quickly exited, though it’s not clear whether he was spooked or simply didn’t want to wait in the buffet line.

The episode was another reminder that, for all of the rustic elegance that developers have brought to the rugged landscape of western Montana during the past decade, the state’s biggest selling point might be that it remains largely wild and untamed. As Charlie Callander, Yellowstone Club’s vice president of sales and marketing, noted, Montana is the fourth-largest state in land mass, yet only recently reached 1 million residents. So it’s hardly surprising that the bears and other wildlife still feel very much at home here.

“Montana is still a bit undiscovered, and as people find their way here, (they’ll find) the spirit here is still very much the western spirit,” Callander said.

That fact, coupled with the active outdoor lifestyle that every Montanan seems to embrace, has a unique appeal. New residents, Callander said, “haven’t moved to Montana because they were repositioned by their company or have to be here for some reason. The vast majority of people I’ve met live here because they really want to be here. Consequently, everybody is happy.”

From Big Sky, a short drive from Yellowstone Park, northward 425 miles to Eureka, near the Canadian border, developers of upscale golf communities have catered to new residents and second-home buyers by reshaping large swaths of this mountainous terrain.

Some of the projects truly embrace the Western ethos of vast, open space. Rock Creek Cattle Company, in Deer Lodge, spreads across 30,000 acres – nearly 47 square miles – and employs 13 cowboys among its 90 employees. Yellowstone Club sits on 14,000 acres, roughly one-fifth of which is set aside for private skiing, and has 46 miles of paved roads. Both are so large that they have their own fire departments.

Yellowstone Club used to get a lot of attention because of the tumultuous divorce proceedings of former owners Tim and Edra Blixseth, an episode that coincided with the market downturn. Now, under the management of Discovery Land Co., attention has been refocused on the club’s setting, real estate and amenities. The club, for instance, is beginning work on more than 150 units near the lodge, with prices starting at about $2.5 million.

Yellowstone Club is home to a vertiginous Tom Weiskopf-designed golf course; the first tee sits at 8,000 feet, and the layout plummets 500 feet by the time you reach the fourth fairway. But the amenity for which the club is best known is its 2,500 acres of private skiing – more than many major public ski areas – and its ski-in, ski-out homes. On that point, as Callander said, “We really don’t have any one-on-one competitors.”

Yellowstone’s mountain also connects to another 5,000 acres of contiguous public ski areas.

“But once people get over there, they understand what our slogan ‘private powder’ means because they get with the masses and there are lift lines and people zinging by,” said Hank Kashiwa, the former Olympic and professional skier who has been an executive at the club since 2001.

This comes at a steep price, but Discovery Land’s family-friendly membership policy – every person in a family’s vertical lineage has membership privileges – helps justify the cost.

“It’s a big ticket, but you kind of go, ‘We’re doing this for the family,’ ” said Greg Daily, a Nashville, Tenn., businessman who has owned a home at Yellowstone Club for seven years. “It’s not just me; it’s not just my wife. We have four kids who are more skiers than they are golfers, but they do play golf. We encourage them to come here – bring their friends, come here for Christmas, come here for spring break, birthdays – so we can justify coming all this distance because it keeps our family together. If you’ve got a great place like this, they’ll come see you.”

At Rock Creek Cattle Company, Fred Nadeau was so convinced that the club would be a great place to work that he accepted the job of general manager, sight unseen, leaving a good job in Palm Springs, Calif. Nadeau’s wife is from Montana, and he trusted the vision of Bill Foley, the billionaire entrepreneur who owned the property – at least until he arrived at the property on May 1, 2007. He remembers reaching the dirt road that still serves as the property’s entryway, getting out of his Acura TL and thinking, What the hell have I done?

Nadeau quickly felt better after making the six-mile drive to the heart of the property, where the club’s eponymous creek now flows past the Cattlemen’s Club, which is the main gathering spot; the Swimming Hole, a name that belies the magnificent pool setting; and the understated Golf House.

“I went from incredibly scared to feeling better to thinking, this is one of the best golf clubs in the world. There’s no doubt about that,” he recalled.

As evidence, Nadeau can point to the Golfweek’s Best Residential Courses list, where Tom Doak’s wow-inducing layout has been firmly entrenched at No. 1 the past two years. The course underscores Doak’s artistry – which benefits from the dramatic landscape – and sense of strategy. Local knowledge is imperative to understand how to attack his peekaboo greens – you might see them from one side of the fairway, but not the other. His many false-fronted greens might at times prove exasperating, even redundant, but they certainly force players to tighten up their iron games.

Properties such as Yellowstone Club and Rock Creek Cattle Company, which command seven- and eight-figure commitments from members, have had to deal with the same market forces as other real estate projects. But there are signs that the marketplace is improving.

“Over the last 24 months as things have shaken out, things have returned to the new normal as far as the pricing structure goes, which is down from the peaks,” said Ross Pickert, president and managing broker of Glacier Sotheby’s International Realty in Whitefish.

He said prices are down 25 percent to 30 percent from their boom-time peak, but that he’s “seeing enough activity at consistent pricing to consider that the market has stabilized.”

Whitefish, in northwest Montana, is home to Iron Horse, one of the most successful high-end developments in the region. Iron Horse, which was developed by Discovery Land Co., benefited from good timing; its infrastructure, including a Tom Fazio golf course, and much of the housing were completed before the real estate crash. It’s also located in the oh-so-cool, year-round vacation town of Whitefish and is convenient to Glacier National Park.

“We sell Whitefish almost as much as we sell Iron Horse,” said Bob Schmidt, who long ago was sold on the area. He used to oversee operations at all of Discovery Land’s properties, but decided to settle in Whitefish, where he serves as general manager of the club, which is now member-owned. It’s a natural choice for buyers looking for a mature club.

“We’re full; we’re built; we’re here. It’s that confidence level that people want,” Schmidt said. “That whole (idea) that ‘I’m going to buy into a speculative community’? Well, not so much.”

There’s a similar story to the south, in the Bitterroot Valley, at Stock Farm, which sits on land once owned by copper king Marcus Daly. A modern-day financial entrepreneur, Charles Schwab, began developing the land in the mid-1990s around a Fazio layout.

Like Iron Horse, Stock Farm was developed at the height of the real estate boom, and today has the look of a stable club. It’s located in Hamilton, which Daly initially developed, and a 40-minute drive south of Missoula, home of the University of Montana. So its 125 lots – including 30 cabins, which are placed in a rental pool when owners are away, and homesites as large as 35 acres – deliver the Western experience without sacrificing any creature comforts. That has proved to be an appealing model, as evidenced by the club’s 280 golf members.

One of the most interesting projects to watch in the coming years will be The Wilderness Club in Eureka, less than 10 miles from the Canadian border. The project missed the real estate boom and was financially troubled when Windmill Golf Group of Calgary, Alberta, acquired it in August 2011. Barry Ehlert, Windmill’s managing partner, is a third-generation course operator and developer. He views The Wilderness Club as a natural retreat for residents of the oil-rich region around Calgary, 235 miles to the north, and southern Alberta, though it has been getting feelers from U.S. buyers.

“We felt that with our demographic in Calgary, we could attract people to the area, and felt like the golf course was a pretty significant draw,” Ehlert said.

Eureka is a blink-and-you-missed-it town – so remote that some residents drive more than 50 miles to Whitefish and Kalispell to do their shopping. At The Wilderness Club, the sense of seclusion is heightened by the fact that much of the property is surrounded by Lake Koocanusa and U.S. Forest Service land.

As with Rock Creek Cattle Company, there’s no question about the quality of the golf. The Wilderness Club is ranked No. 1 on the list of Golfweek’s Best Courses You Can Play in Montana. (Like many ostensibly private clubs, The Wilderness Club has welcomed public play while building its membership base.)

Ehlert’s group has moved quickly to change the club’s business strategy toward a more affordable, family-focused product. Price points for homes and lots have been lowered considerably. Homesites start at $175,000, and standalone cabins with lots can be had for $389,000.

The Windmill Group also recently opened a large waterpark, complete with waterslide, to appeal to families and also demonstrate its commitment to turning around the troubled project.

“We wanted to set the tone for the rest of the community as far as, ‘Hey, when we say we’re going to do something, we’re going to do it to at an extremely high standard and quality,’ ” Ehlert said.

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