Dearborn Hills looks for niche in changing market

“We decided to get rid of the exclamation point. We are trying to present ourselves as friendly and professional.” — Dearborn Hills Manager Lee Morris

Times-Herald Newspapers
DEARBORN — On a fence separating the bucolic east side of Dearborn Hills golf course from the roar of northbound Telegraph traffic, a large banner reads, “Golf here this year. Please.”
In text, it’s hard to determine if the slogan is a plea or just a courteously phrased suggestion. In reality, it might be a little of both.
“I was kind of worried it might come across (as desperate), so we decided to get rid of the exclamation point. But I think it does capture what we are trying to present ourselves as, and that is friendly and professional,” said manager Lee Morris.
The slogan is part of an overall strategy to strengthen the brand recognition of the municipally owned course as competition for golfers’ money becomes increasingly stronger, Morris said.
With 956 courses in Michigan, the second most of any state in the country, the competition facing the par-3 18-hole course always has been tough. Within only a six-mile radius of Dearborn Hills are eleven other full-length courses.
But over the last few years, the course also has been forced to adjust to a new economic reality confronting the golf world where revenue is shrinking and costs are rising. Oil prices – which are tied to almost every aspect of course maintenance – have experienced historic fluctuations over that period and affected courses everywhere.
The nationwide recession, felt particularly here in Michigan, also has shifted many golfers’ dollars into savings as people worry about job security. And with the local unemployment rate at more than 15 percent, many people presumably don’t have the money to spend — period.
The local effect has been compounded by massive white-collar job cuts in the automotive industry, which has supplied the course with a well-monied customer base for years. In recent years, Ford Motor Co. has slashed jobs at its world headquarters, seat supplier Lear Corp. moved to Southfield and plastics supplier Plastech Engineered Products Inc. was liquidated in bankruptcy.
So with the course’s local target demographic drastically reduced, Morris hopes that a little creative marketing and a refocused business model will help to keep the course viable. Part of that shift is in attracting banquets and special events, now responsible for about half of the course’s revenue. Weekend bookings for special events are solid through the rest of the summer until they begin to tail off in October.
“We’ll always be a golf course first, but we’ve found that these once-in-a-lifetime events – your weddings, graduations, and things of that nature – people just don’t put those off because of the economy,” Morris said.
The push to turn a profit will be an uphill battle, though. The course still is paying down bonds sold to finance the course revamp in the early 1990s, and it hasn’t turned out a balance sheet in the black since at least 2002.
Dearborn Hills also falls into the oft-stigmatized category of “executive courses,” so-named because their short length is well suited to the businessman without enough time to play a full-length course. Morris said the characterization probably wards off some men looking to rip 300-yard drives, but for the same reason is appealing to women who don’t hit the ball as far.
“It’s kind of a testosterone thing, I think, but I always tell guys, ‘If you come out here and you don’t enjoy yourself, I’ll give you a refund,’” Morris said. “I’ve never had to give one.”
But as the course works to carve out a niche in a vastly changing market, Morris has no reservations about reiterating the simple request that appears on the roadside banner.