Things are popping at The Ranch Club golf community on Mullan Road since new ownership took over from a bank in July.

Long dormant housing projects have picked up, clubhouse expansions and relocations are on pace to begin soon and Caffe Firenze of Florence is handling the food services in an eatery that will, in part, more resemble a sports bar than an exclusive clubhouse.

“The buzz is good. Everybody’s excited about being part of The Ranch Club now,” said Walt Willey of Hamilton, president of Vanguard Golf Management of Utah and the Missoula.

Vanguard bought the semi-private golf course that was known as Phantom Hills when Washington Corp. built it in 2002. It was renamed when John and Colleen Powers took over in 2007. They relinquished ownership three years ago to First Interstate Bank.

First Interstate hired a golf management company out of San Diego to keep things up and running. Now comes Vanguard, Utah’s largest such company with three other courses in Utah and Nevada.

Willey said he’s grateful to First Interstate for working well with Vanguard, but it’s never a good thing when a bank owns a property like this.

“I think a few homeowners can take a breath now, a little sigh of relief and say, ‘OK, wow, maybe there’s some stability now. We’re going in the right direction,” he said.

About the time Vanguard was eyeing The Ranch Club last summer, two local businessmen began hatching a similar plan – “after too many Cold Smokes possibly,” said Alex Duman.

The more he and Jesse Fortune looked at it, the more they became convinced there was potential to make some money on the golf course and the undeveloped lots.

“At that time development was still kind of a bad word in the eyes of the bank, so it was kind of a challenge to get somebody to listen to us,” said Duman, who formed DAFJ Enterprises with Fortune.

A mutual friend introduced them to Vanguard and both companies realized they could benefit by partnering with the other. Willey and Vanguard specialize in the management of golf courses, so that’s what they purchased at the Ranch Club. Duman and Fortune have a background in real estate development. They picked up 173 undeveloped lots surrounding the course that were pre-platted.

Willey is a Montana native who grew up in Polson and Hamilton, played tennis for the University of Montana and married Grizzly volleyball hall-of-famer Cindy Pitzinger. They raised their family in Salt Lake City before moving back to Montana four years ago.

Duman has lived in Missoula for 17 years and seen the fortunes of real estate in the valley rise and fall. Both are personable men who say they were drawn by the potential The Ranch Club offered of developing high-end products for golfers and homeowners.

“It all ties in,” Willey said. “We can’t have success without them on board, and vice versa. We can’t fail on our end and have them have success.”

Duman said five months before the final sale of the lots went through on July 17, DAFJ started the drawings and civil engineering on 30 lots between hole No. 10 and No. 12 north of Ranch Club Road.

It was a calculated risk, he admitted, “but we knew if we didn’t we wouldn’t have enough time to get started this year.”

Heavy equipment was at the site a few days in advance, and construction crews literally hit the ground running. Even as a couple of new homes are under construction by a separate developer directly to the east of the clubhouse, DAFJ contractors are putting in some 700 yards of new road and infrastructure into phases No. 7 and 8 in the subdivision plat.

One of the first orders of business was to remove a gigantic mound of clay left over from previous development. That’s already improved the view from the clubhouse, something that the new owners are tuned into.

Seventeen of the 30 lots are listed for an average of roughly $130,000, and Duman said they have five buy-sell agreements in the four weeks they’ve been on the market.

“We’re just doing the dirt work, but right now we’ve got one builder and possibly two interested in building spec homes,” he said.

After some tweaking with the architectural controls to emphasize wood, steel and stone on the exteriors, the homes will run from $500,000 up.

“We’ve received a lot of feedback that there’s a real need for that type of neighborhood in Missoula, so that’s the void we’re trying to fill right now,” Duman said. “This is a beautiful golf course, a beautiful area, with lots of expansive views, and we really want to take advantage of all these great things.”

If all goes according to plan, Ranch Club Road will be punched through the rest of the way to Mullan Road and a grand new entrance to the golf course added near Cote Lane.

Willey wants to have an extensive remodel of the clubhouse finished by February or March, before the next golf season begins.

It’ll involve a number of capital improvements, enlarging the cooking by 12 feet, moving the current fitness room to a new addition west of the current one, and turning the existing room into a golf shop that overlooks the driving range and first tee box. The larger shop space will allow offices to be moved from the “dungeon,” said Willey. It’ll also provide better marketing opportunities. The Ranch Club recently signed a two-year corporate sponsorship with University of Montana athletics to be able to push Griz wear.

A conference room and more offices will be part of a second story above the clubhouse.

The most visible change will come in the restaurant, a small interior space with eight tables at the moment. Willey has added Caffe Firenze as the operating arm of the restaurant.

“They want to create a little more of a destination here at the golf course, you might say,” said Willey.

That will entail a front space with “more of a sports bar feel,” something that area of town is largely missing. The fine dining option will be in a separate room.

He stressed that while his is a semi-private club with membership rolls approaching 370, restaurant, pool and golf facilities are open to the general public. That has confused even Willey’s friends, who’ve told him they didn’t come out because they didn’t know they were welcomed.

“The feel of this place has kind of changed,” said Duman, a club member. “Five years ago you’d walk in here and it was kind of stuffy, in my opinion. Now you can walk in here and there’s a lot of young families out here. It’s nice. You can comfortably walk in here and have dinner with your kids, or you can go swimming in the pool.”

Plans are to pour footings to the clubhouse additions before winter.

“We’d like to see it ready by February or March, before we get rolling in the spring again, so we need to do this right away,” Willey said.

Indeed, it’ll be a whole new Ranch Club, and feedback has been positive from the neighbors most affected and from the public that Willey said notices The Ranch Club’s name on the reader boards in Washington-Grizzly Stadium.

“They didn’t know if the doors were going to be locked and if there were going to be tumbleweeds blowing down the fairway,” he said. “I think it’s a breath of fresh air for everybody, especially in this community right here.”

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