ITHACA, NY -- The Country Club of Ithaca is about to see some changes as new owners get ready to take over. Sean and Jennifer Whittaker are in the process of purchasing the club and expect to close on the deal sometime in March.
The couple have been members for 23 years and said the club is special to them.
“We have two children, Rachel and Nicholas, that were born while we were members there, and they grew up at the club,” Sean said. “It’s about the friendships we’ve made over the years.”
They have decided to rebrand the Country Club of Ithaca to “RaNic” which represents their children’s names.
Sean said he started thinking about buying the club around a year ago. The pandemic had forced him out of his office, so he began spending more time at the club. This is when he started noticing that some improvements needed to be made.
“I became much more involved in the golf course side and realized, over time, it had fallen into disrepair,” he said. “So we embarked on that and helped the grounds crew and I just realized how much of a gem of a golf course it was. But it needed a lot of attention.”
He helped with drainage improvements, brush removal and tree trimming to allow sunlight on the greens, and he tried to get the course back into prime condition.
“As the club’s financial situation began to deteriorate, and a lot of that was due to COVID, we approached this with a long-term vision,” Sean said. “Something radical has to happen to survive.”
Sean decided he’s going to take the club in a different direction, with one major change being that he’s going to open the course and restaurant to the public.
“We’re going to work with a local restaurateur,” he said. “I can’t quite say which one yet, but we’ll work with a successful group in town to run the food and beverage operations for us […] It has a real viable public restaurant appeal.”
Jennifer added that they are also going to work on bringing more events, such as weddings, to the clubhouse, and said they had been working to coordinate with Cornell University to host some of their events as well.
Tofacilitate that, the Whittakers will be making some cosmetic changes, such as repainting railings and improving the awnings, and taking on some interior renovations next year.
In a letter to members, Sean said they’ve also begun removing and replacing the sheetrock under the deck. While doing this, they discovered there was no insulation under the formal dining room, which is why the room is so cold in the winter. They will then replace the exterior fascia boards, and when the weather permits they will paint and refinish the exterior railings, powerwash the entire facility and refinish the exterior walls on the rear deck.
“We’re going to do some pretty radical changes,” Sean said. “The demographic has really changed at the club. In general, country clubs across the nation are not thriving. Golf is, but the image of a country club and that stuffy environment isn’t socially accepted, especially in Ithaca, so we’re looking to make it more of a golf-focused operation and less of a country club, where the public can come and dine and play golf.”
Another new initiative the Whittakers will introduce to the club is a junior golf program.
“We have a vision of trying to work with the YMCA so we can let every youth in Tompkins County come and take some lessons, or go through clinics that [Nicholas] could run over the summer months,” Sean said.
They’re also planning on hiring a golf professional to oversee the pro shop, and have hired Jamie Hinman as the superintendent, Tim Lane as the head greenskeeper and Noah Demarest as the golf course architect.
And because it’s a family effort, Rachel and Nicholas will help out too.
“My son will work on the ground crew and at the pro shop, and my daughter will be helping at the pool area and rec center,” Sean said. “My wife and I will be very engaged. We see this as a real family affair.”
There are also ideas for other improvements, such as buying brand new golf carts with GPS in them and getting a tennis pro for the tennis courts at the club.
“We really believe that if you build it they will come,” Sean said.
However, despite the big plans for the club, Sean said he doesn’t want to do too much too fast.
“We’re going to take a slow path with this,” he said. “We’re not trying to grow too rapidly, and we’re not going to change things too quickly. But over time, support from the community and demand is really what’s key.”
The club will be open as normal once the snow melts — Sean said golf season typically kicks off around April 1, though he expects they will open the restaurant before that. He added that fees will be significantly reduced in an effort to build a solid base of patrons.