With offices around the country, the Peoria-based Turf Solutions Group (TSG) offers two decades of experience in recreational land design and development, providing construction design and management of golf and athletic facilities throughout North America and parts of Europe, Asia and Central America. iBi spoke with Jason Payne, managing partner of TSG and a Peoria native.
How did Turf Solutions Group get its start?
After my technology development days, I was looking for something to focus on where I could use my technology design and development background but not have to develop applications. I wanted to find something more enjoyable day to day. I had played golf recreationally since high school, and thought that I might like an opportunity in that industry. I wanted to build a putting green in my backyard, so I investigated it on the web in 2001 and ordered the product later that year. I built it myself and will definitely say that it wasn’t the best project that we’ve completed to date, but it did get me interested in the industry, especially the synthetic turf side of things. I learned a lot about synthetic turf usage over the next couple of years.
Scott Pierce and I met back in 2004 at a trade show. Scott had spent the last 15 years managing the construction of many golf courses throughout the United States and Central America. He had a passion for golf development and still has the same passion today. Scott had recently learned about synthetic turf products being used in the golf industry and had completed a few projects of his own, but his real love is bringing a championship golf course to life.
Scott and I threw some ideas back and forth. We talked about combining the skills of his company in project management with my technology and marketing background. Scott wanted to add a piece to the puzzle, and added Bill Phillips to the party. Bill is a graduate of Ball State University in landscape architecture and currently resides in Scottsdale, Arizona, while running our design office. Bill is one of the most creative golf course architects in the country and has master-planned hundreds of golf courses, parks and athletic complexes throughout his 25-year career.
I agreed that Bill would be a nice addition, as I had seen a trend in commercial building construction toward design/build and thought that this, someday, would be adapted into golf and sports construction. The three of us agreed to merge together to provide design, planning and construction services in the golf industry as a team, so off we went. We agreed that we’d have offices in Illinois and Arizona. Our sales, administration and operations support is based in Illinois. Our design and planning is based in Arizona.
We quickly realized that we needed to increase our offerings to athletic field construction services, given that Bill was already providing design services in that market. We wanted to balance any downturn in golf development with sports fields, and that was the best decision that we’ve made to date. We added some very skilled talent to our company in 2006 to support the athletic construction side of our business, and it’s worked out great.
We also realized that we needed a really talented person to handle the day-to-day administration of the business. Enter Mead Babcock. Mead and I had met during a short consulting project in 2004. He is a Certified Public Accountant and graduate of the University of Illinois. Mead joined the team in 2006 and became a partner that same year. We now had all of the puzzle pieces in place and were ready to take this merged group to an entirely new level.
Describe the managerial structure of the company.
Mead handles the day-to-day administration as president of the company. He is responsible for accounting and human resources. Bill, our senior architect, is responsible for design and planning for our golf and sports projects, and runs our office in Arizona. Scott, our vice president of construction services, is responsible for managing our construction team. I am managing partner, responsible for the sales and marketing team and future vision and direction, with the help of the other partners. All four of us are shareholders and owners in the company.
What is the current state of the recreational land development industry? What are the biggest trends impacting the industry?
New golf course development has definitely slowed domestically in the last 10 years, but we are starting to see an increase in renovation work at existing golf courses. Adding sports field construction services to our offerings has really helped to balance the lulls in the golf side of our business. We have a healthy mix of projects that are publicly bid, along with projects developed for private owners. There is still money available for sports field design and construction at the high school and college levels, although it had been slightly slower from 2007 through 2009. We have seen a real increase in this area over the last 18 months, and it appears to be getting even more active. We are also seeing more privately owned projects on the sports field side of the business, and that’s a good sign of economic improvement domestically.
Describe some of your major projects here in central Illinois.
Metamora Fields Golf Club, championship golf course construction, including over 250 acres of construction.
Metamora High School, synthetic turf on sidelines of the football field for the state champion Redbirds.
Rolling Greens Golf Course, design and construction of 18-hole championship golf course in Mount Sterling to replace an existing 40-year old, nine-hole golf course.
Quail Meadows Golf Course, design and construction of indoor golf practice facility that is very popular now for wintertime practice.
Dunlap High School, design and construction of the new cross country course that wraps through the main and valley campuses, and renovation work on the baseball and softball fields at the valley campus. We were just awarded the contracts to replace the existing football field with synthetic turf at the main campus and to build a new soccer field for the high school at the valley campus.
What about the rest of the country?
We’ve designed and built projects in 40+ states and many foreign countries. We’ve had experiences from Scott and I working tirelessly in Barcelona, Spain, while dealing with a definite language barrier, to Scott and Bill being required to ride donkeys on a site visit to a golf community that we master-planned near Guanacaste, Costa Rica, because of the rough terrain.
We’ve designed and constructed really cool mini-golf putting courses, golf renovation features that have changed the look of the entire course, and completed some jobs for famous sports figures and celebrities on the private estate golf side of our business. That’s probably the coolest part of the business, but in the end, they are just down-to-earth people who love golf and want a private golf venue on their property. Yes, we have built entire golf holes on private properties and even entire golf courses, too. You wouldn’t even know that these private venues exist unless you were invited onto the property. It’s a totally different world!
Some of our current clients include: Oklahoma State University, Purdue University, University of Tennessee at Chattanooga, Notre Dame University, Harvard University, Liberty University, Bradley University, Webster University, Carolinas Baseball Center, America’s Park Baseball, Nation’s Park Baseball, Tampa Palms Country Club, Emerald Bay Golf Club, Haile’s Plantation Golf Club, La Canada Flintridge Country Club, El Corazon Equestrian Center and Game-On Athletics. We have completed projects for many high schools and other colleges across the United States as well. We also have many municipal customers like the City of Whiting, Indiana, and the City of Newberry, Florida.
TSG managed the construction of a D.A. Weibring-designed golf course at Metamora Fields. How often does this scenario occur, versus doing the design work yourself?
It was fun to have the opportunity to work with the Weibring Wolfard team on the Metamora Fields Golf Club project. Working with architects on these types of projects is a common practice, but we have seen a trend toward more design/build projects recently. We collaborated well on the Metamora project, and we have also bid with D.A.’s team on a combined design/build bid in Texas, although we weren’t selected. They are a talented group, and we have enjoyed the experience.
In the same project, TSG also provided services for annexation, zoning, permitting, engineering, etc. Is this full-services model typical in your industry?
We deal with permitting and zoning a lot as part of our design and planning practice. We offered this support to the Metamora project because we are located right here in central Illinois. The Village of Metamora was great to work with on this part of the project, and they are all very supportive of Metamora Fields.
How often are concepts brought to you that are overambitious or just not feasible?
Almost every day! We get an average of 150 opportunities of every shape and size possible thrown at us every month right now, most of which come through our website and online presence. We take serious looks at about 15 of these per month and actually work on just a few per month.
What is the biggest challenge when designing a golf course or athletic complex?
Athletic complexes and new golf courses or golf practice facilities have the same two problems—financing and feasibility. These are two of the biggest challenges. We have to make sure that the project makes sense for where it’s being built, and we have to make certain that our client has the ability to properly finance the project to completion.
Describe the process of reclamation.
Reclamation involves reclaiming land that was used in mining or a similar trade that is to be converted back to green space of some type. We have seen a slowdown in these types of projects domestically, but we are hopeful that it will pick up. Reclamation does not always involve golf or sports. Many times, it involves grassing and bringing areas back to their native state.
Synthetic vs. natural turf? What are the pros/cons and implications of each?
We are one of only a few companies nationally that works on both synthetic and natural turf projects. We provide a lot more natural turf work in square footage per year than synthetic turf. Synthetic turf is becoming increasingly popular as a solution that is maintenance-free, for the most part, and can provide nearly limitless play without damaging the quality of the field. Natural turf is still far less expensive to use but requires more maintenance. We have not seen synthetic turf used on golf courses for the most part, and that will likely not change much in the near-future because of the price difference between natural and synthetic, combined with the sheer size of a regulation golf course.
What is your dream project?
If you were to ask Scott, it’s likely he’d say a golf course renovation at Augusta National Golf Club—home of the Masters Golf Tournament. Mead might say a sports field construction or renovation at his alma mater, the University of Illinois. Bill might like to design/build a project in the Caribbean. For me, it would definitely be to design and build a really state-of-the-art youth outdoor sports complex right here in central Illinois.
What’s in the works for TSG?
We are building youth baseball complexes for Lou Presutti, owner of Cooperstown Dreams Park, and his partners in Florida and North Carolina. With a little luck, we may even be building one right in Peoria as well. We have built sports fields at military bases from coast to coast, and that looks like it will continue. We are working on golf renovation projects in several states, and we are working on a few new golf course construction projects in other countries right now.
Anything else you’d like to add?
We enjoy the work that we do. This is definitely a specialty niche industry, and you need great people to help manage the different areas of the business. Without leadership from folks like Mike Ryan, Holly Emlen, Terry Vickrey, Steve Ambrose, Andy Paulson, Don Zanzie, Gary Olson, John Ehrgott and many others, this wouldn’t be possible. iBi