BY MYERS REECE

Transforming a Logging Community into a Destination Town

Just outside of Eureka, near a roadside marker for a fish hatchery and another announcing “Hay for Sale,” a sign points you toward a place called the Wilderness Club. You turn past a red barn, continue through working agricultural fields and then wind into conifer-covered hills, following smaller signs along the way.

Up until this point, if you didn’t know otherwise, you may think the Wilderness Club is actually some kind of a wilderness retreat in the forest, maybe a cozy cabin getaway. Not until you see patches of meticulously groomed, bright-green grass on the horizon can you decipher your destination: a luxurious if unlikely 600-acre development, highlighted by what might be Montana’s finest golf course.

And only a handful of miles away, another golf lifestyle development – the nearly 500-acre Indian Springs Ranch – culls passing motorists from U.S. Highway 93 just south of the Canadian border.

Together, Indian Springs and the Wilderness Club encompass more than 1,000 sprawling acres on the outskirts of a town with barely 1,000 people. The developers are putting their faith in an economic vision that would transform Eureka from a logging community into what Indian Springs’ golf pro calls a “destination town,” predominantly catering to Canadians but with increasingly focused efforts to reach out to Montanans.

The transformation, to a degree, is already underway.

“It’s not that far off,” says Birch Criswell, the PGA golf professional at Indian Springs Ranch, adding that he doesn’t anticipate Eureka becoming a high-end resort town and hopes it will retain much of its rural charm.

The Tobacco Valley was once home to a robust timber industry. Christmas trees were such an abundant export that Eureka was dubbed the “Christmas Tree Capital of the World.” But today there is no longer an operating sawmill in the area. Sprouting up in the void are organic grocery stores and sushi restaurants.

Dave Rogers, one of Indian Springs Ranch’s developers, envisioned Eureka as a resort town – in the tradition of Canada’s Fernie or Banff – when he purchased property north of town in 2005. Wilderness Club developers had similarly high hopes. Only a few miles south of the border, Eureka is well positioned to be a Canadian playground. It also has nearby lakes such as Lake Koocanusa, with miles of undeveloped shoreline and water recreational opportunities, along with relatively mild weather.

But it was a slow start out of the gates for both developments. After opening in 2009, at the height of the U.S. recession, real estate activity on Indian Springs’ home sites and RV lots was minimal. The Wilderness Club, with its prestigious Nick Faldo-designed golf course, opened around the same time but never really got on its feet and quickly fell into the bank’s hands.

Yet the tide is turning in 2012. Both the Wilderness Club and Indian Springs are reporting their best years – by far – across the board, from golf to real estate. The destination town concept just might be taking shape.

The economic recovery is undoubtedly contributing to the upturn, though probably more so at Indian Springs than at the more upscale Wilderness Club, which often attracts wealthier Canadians who weren’t generally hit hard by the American recession. But officials at both places attribute most of the surge to internal improvements, marketing strategies and word of mouth.

Rich Bohne, one of eight Alberta partners who took over the Wilderness Club from Glacier Bank in September 2011, said the total number of golf rounds is anticipated to jump from 8,000 last year to 14,000 this season, including more Montanans form the Flathead Valley. The course, which was initially private but has been public under the new ownership, was named the best in Montana by Golfweek in 2012.

As of early August, Bohne said 42 of the 86 available real estate lots had been sold. New homes and cabins are continuously either under construction or in planning, in the range of a few hundred thousands dollars to over a million. All of the real estate development has occurred since 2011, almost entirely driven by Canadians. Ultimately, Bohne anticipates being able to sell all of the 384 plotted lots as phases are added over the years.

“There’s a lot of vibrancy and momentum happening with the real estate,” Bohne says.

Indian Springs is experiencing a strong uptick in RV lot sales, while home site sales are also up from last year. And the golf course is busier than it’s ever been. Criswell, hired earlier this year as Indian Springs’ first PGA pro, said summer golf play was up 50 percent over the previous year, split about 50-50 between Canadians and locals from around Northwest Montana. June was up 85 percent.

New amenities, such as a patio pub, as well as improvements to the actual course have played a major role. Earlier efforts to incorporate long, native grass along the narrow fairways had led to demoralized golfers, Criswell said, which doesn’t bode well for repeat customers. They mowed down a lot of grass and widened the fairways.

“Before, people were leaving discouraged,” he said. “Now, they’re leaving happy.”

Officials at both developments have increased their community outreach. Even if few of the Wilderness Club’s customers are from Eureka, Bohne understands the importance – for both sides – of a strong bilateral relationship. His customers use services in Eureka, which pumps money into an economy increasingly reliant on outside dollars. He said more locals are opening up to the idea of a tourism-driven economy.

Meanwhile, Indian Springs expanded its golf programs for locals, boosting its Montana clientele and opening up channels of communication.

“We’ve done everything we can to embrace the community,” Criswell said, “and be embraced by the community.”

Wilderness Club
Founded: 2009
Yardage: 7207
Par: 72
Address: 1885 Sophie Lake Rd., Eureka, MT 59917
Contact: 406-889-6501

Indian Springs
Founded: 2009
Yardage: 6677
Par: 71
Address: 3082 Highway 93 N., Eureka, MT 59917
Contact: 406-889-5056