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Going solar: Northport Creek Golf Course

Nine-hole layout in Traverse City, Mich., goes off the grid, with solar power providing all electricity for course operations.

| | Originally posted on Traverse City Record-Eagle

Northport Creek Golf Course
Golfers tee off at Northport Creek GC in Traverse City, Mich., among the solar panels that provide electricity for the course’s operations. Photo by Tessa Lighty/Traverse City Record-Eagle

Green isn’t just a description of the putting surface at Northport Creek Golf Club.

Green might as well be the official color of the par-35, nine-hole golf course thanks to an array of solar panels and its economic impact on the village.

The idea of going green to account for nearly all of its electrical needs was always part of the plan when developer Bill Collins and some investors bought a 63-acre foreclosed cherry farm in 2011. Development began the following year, most of the major construction happened in 2013, and the nine-hole tract opened in July 2014.

“The solar option was integrated in the beginning,” Northport Creek Head Golf Professional Chris McCann said.

Collins, a retired automobile engineer, and his team actually worked backward when Phase I saw the installation of 16 12-panel units that annually produce 64,000 kilowatt-hours, enough electricity to power seven average-sized homes.

“They wanted to find out how much energy it would require to run the irrigation system,” McCann said. “They then engineered it back to see how much energy they would have to produce.”

Phase II saw the installation of two arrays of 48 solar panels with computer tracking that moves with the sun, recalibrating every five minutes. Designed to handle the electrical needs of the clubhouse and the electric golf carts, Phase II generates another 21,000 kilowatt-hours.

“The basic goal out there was to end up with a situation where when I gave it to the village, they wouldn’t lose money on the deal,” Collins said.

McCann said the total cost of installation of the solar panels was $210,000. Northport Creek doesn’t have electrical storage capabilities on site, instead using a bi-directional meter that puts the electricity it generates back into the Consumers Energy grid.

“Last year our utility bill was $1,500,” McCann said. “Every year we’re trying to get that lower and lower.

“It costs more for my electric bill at my house. It’s just off the golf course, and it’s only 1,000 square feet.”

Northport Creek GC was named one of the “13 Great Nine-Hole Golf Courses” by Golf Vacation Insider. Photo by Tessa Lighty/Traverse City Record-Eagle

One of the reasons Collins wanted to bring a golf course to Northport was to replace some of the tourism lost when the 18-hole Matheson Greens southwest of the village closed in 2000. McCann said the village took another hit years later when Leelanau Memorial Hospital ceased operations.

“There was a slow and steady decline in the whole Northport area,” said McCann, who was born in the hospital and graduated from Northport High School.

McCann said Northport is on the rebound with several new businesses and now offers several amenities other towns of similar size don’t, like a six-lane bowling alley, a brewpub and a public pool facility, not to mention a marina on Northport Bay.

The golf course is part of the revival, McCann said. He said golfers will often stop for a meal before or after the round, or visit any number of village businesses, often on a referral from golf course staff.

“We’ve got a lot of people who wander in, even from out of state,” Collins said of the business generation. “We could always use more.”

“We’ve been trying to figure out what the multiplier of the golf course is,” he said.

The golf course’s location on the northwest edge of the village also helps, McCann said. It gets people off the “M-22 Loop” and takes people through the village along the 1.467-mile M-209, which McCann has taken to calling “Michigan’s Magnificent Mile” on Facebook.

“If you haven’t been here before or if you haven’t been here in a while, you have to drive through downtown Northport to get here,” McCann said.

As for the par-35 course itself — there is only one par-5 hole — designed by Jerry Matthews, it plays 3,015 yards, with a slope rating of 130 from the back tees.

“Most people are surprised at how tough the course is,” McCann said. “I would describe it as a second-shot golf course. It’s not about how far you drive the ball; it’s more about placement.”

McCann said the course’s “signature hole” is the par-3 eighth over a wetland, which bookends the second- and third-hardest handicap holes.

“The course gets progressively harder as you play it,” he said. “It allows you to warm up through the round.”

Because No. 6 is right by the clubhouse, Northport Creek offers a rare six-hole playing option in addition to 9- and 18-hole rates.

“We say we have a front six and a back nine,” McCann said with a laugh.

The course’s solar array earned it the 2015 Green Star Award from Golf Digest. Northport Creek was recently named one of the “13 Great Nine-Hole Golf Courses” by Golf Vacation Insider, and is awaiting the release later this fall of Golf Digest’s list of the top 25 nine-hole courses.

“If we make the list, great,” McCann said. “If we don’t, I’m not going to lose sleep over it.

“We’ll just keep doing what we’re doing, and people seem to like what we are doing.”