They had never managed a business. Never used a spreadsheet, never hired and fired people, never dealt with intricate insurance policies. Heck, they didn’t even play golf. • But a few years ago, when their husbands died within months of each other, Kittie and Linda Fenlason suddenly found themselves owners and operators of Blackberry Ridge, a 216-acre golf course and event center in Sartell, Minn.
Their husbands, who were brothers, had been in charge of the business. The wives had never been much involved; Kittie had a teaching career, and Linda had worked in a variety of local shops. But now the sisters-in-law had to learn how to run a golf course — and fast.
“We decided we’d better get busy and try to make this thing survive,” Kittie said.
They succeeded. Despite tough times for the golf-course industry in general, Blackberry Ridge seems to be not just surviving, but flourishing.
Until about 12 years ago, Blackberry Ridge was a dairy farm. Brothers Donnie and Veryl Fenlason had grown up on the 560-acre spread just north of St. Cloud and farmed it together, living in neighboring houses with their families. But by the late 1990s, as the men grew older and started suffering health problems, the farm was getting harder to operate. A neighbor suggested that the land, with its open spaces and thicket of old trees, would make a fine golf course. None of the Fenlasons golfed, but the two families decided to try it.
“We were looking to make life easier,” Linda said. “Whoops!”
They had trees thinned, which “we thought was going to ruin our woods because it was so beautiful,” Linda said. “But actually it’s more beautiful this way, because it’s like a park.” They had granite blasted away. They added a bar and grill and large banquet facility, and created an adjoining 59-lot housing development (they finally sold the last lot in March).
Tragedy struck in 2009, when Donnie died of heart disease. Veryl died of non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma 10 months later. And two women who barely knew a birdie from a bogey found themselves in charge.
The timing was hardly ideal. Between the economic downturn, years of overexuberant course development and growing competition for people’s leisure time, nationally the golf-course industry has been weathering rough times. In just the past two years, according to the National Golf Foundation, more than 300 courses around the country closed.
Selling Blackberry Ridge was not an option. In the current economy, “anyone who wants to purchase that sort of thing pays pennies on the dollar,” Kittie said. After paying back the loans they had taken out to develop the course, there’d be little left to live on.
So they hired a consultant, asked a lot of questions, developed a sturdy support group. Help came from a variety of sources: good friends, an organization of business owners who share advice, their local bank. “They get so excited when we have success,” Linda said.
Their religion has been a major source of strength. “Kittie and I both have a deep faith in God, that he will give us wisdom and strength — which he has,” Linda said.
Even now, they’re continually sprucing things up, beautifying the grounds, improving customer services. They’re currently revamping the bar and grill, adding new lighting, new booths and a new menu. They’ve created a new website. It all gets easier as they go along, “which is really amazing to me,” Linda said. “Every day, we realize how much we don’t know — and how much we’ve learned.”
“And how much faith we have to have to go forward,” Kittie added. “It’s important to build a team, and that’s what we endeavor to do.”
That team includes family members: Kittie’s son Wes is superintendent and daughter Jeanne is event captain. Linda’s son-in-law Allen Rothstein and grandson Mat are also part of a staff that swells to more than 50 employees in busy times. They’ve hired a new golf pro and a new executive chef. And last fall, when they needed to replace the general manager, Kittie and Linda took on the job themselves.
The event center, which accommodates up to 300, has already booked 50 weddings this year, along with business meetings and Christmas parties. They’re planning special activities to appeal to women and families, groups that many see as potential growth areas for the golf industry.
Finally, the sisters-in-law may even learn to golf. “My plan is to learn this summer,” Linda said. “Maybe we can market clinics as, Come and Learn With Linda.”
“We took some lessons from our first golf pro, and he said, ‘At the very least, you can look good,’” Kittie said. “Success is in the eye of the beholder, I guess. We love the game. We love the people. We love the course. Are we players? No. But we’re going to keep trying, how’s that?”
Katy Read • 612-673-4583