By LEE J. KAHRS
BRANDON – A Waterbury businessman and golf pro who used to mow his neighbor’s lawn for extra money now has a lot more lawn to mow.
But he’ll have people for that.
Jon Milne and his family last week bought the Neshobe Golf Club, saving the 160-acre golf course and clubhouse from imminent foreclosure. The club will continue to operate as a golf course and the employees will be retained.
“It’s a really big deal,” Milne said in a phone interview Monday. “It’s a lifelong dream for me.”
Milne and his family own several liquor stores and Subway sandwich franchises in Vermont, but he is also a certified golf pro. In fact, he interviewed for the golf pro job at Neshobe in 1996, but Paul Politano got the job instead.
The deal came together quickly. The National Bank of Middlebury began foreclosure proceedings against Neshobe in October. Club board chairman Jeff Wallin announced in late November that the club was only able to raise about half of the $575,000 necessary to wipe out the club’s debt and prevent foreclosure, but that Neshobe’s board would pursue a buyer.
Wallin said his first conversation with Milne about buying the club happened the week of Thanksgiving. The deal was done on Jan. 7.
Milne Golf LLC bought the 60-year-old club for $550,000. The bank was owed $540,000.
The board sent out an appeal letter earlier in November seeking $4,000 per member to erase the club’s long-term debt before the end of 2019, but the effort fell short. The debt was a combination of a long-term mortgage and a line of credit, Wallin said.
Reached Monday, Wallin said he was thrilled about the sale.
“It think it’s the best thing that could’ve happened to Neshobe,” he said. “It was a remarkably fast tracked purchase, so to be able to put that together says a lot about Jon’s business focus, and the bank worked very cooperatively with all parties to see that we got it done.”
Wallin had been critical of the National Bank of Middlebury for going ahead with foreclosure proceedings as the club tried to raise funds, but on Monday he was very complimentary of the bank.
“I don’t think they realized the value of the course to the town and they really did a wonderful job of working with us to make it a win-win-win,” he said.
Milne, 50, was even more impressed with how the National Bank of Middlebury handled the sale, and how it would be paid back on the loan.
“I’ve never witnessed anything like it,” he said. “They were just unbelievable. I could not believe how hard they tried to keep the interest of the town out front. They could have taken another path and let the property go to auction. Their haircut would’ve looked a little different.”
Brandon Economic Development Officer and Recreation Director Bill Moore echoed those sentiments.
“We’re really happy that the bank saw the value of Neshobe and worked really hard to maintain a golf club here,” he said. “It’s very exciting. Jon is very interested in promoting the game for youth. He loves the course, and he’s on board to work with kids at the high school and in the youth program.”
Milne Golf LLC is comprised on Milne; his wife Agnes; his parents Bob and Lois Milne; his three children, Victor, Christie and Mandy; and PGA golf pro Steve Gonsalves, who works out of the Kwiniaska Golf Club in Shelburne. Gonsalves also runs a successful youth golfing program there, Gonzo’s Golf Academy.
Milne’s daughter Mandy is an assistant golf pro at the Scarsdale Golf Club in Westchester County, N.Y., where Milne was once assistant golf pro himself.
Neshobe’s financial woes were part of a larger, national problem, as the sport has become less popular nationwide in recent decades. According to a National Golf Foundation 2019 report, U.S. golf course closures have outnumbered new course openings nationwide since 2006, and 10 percent of the nation’s courses have closed since then. Bringing kids up on golf is one way to assure continuity and growth in the sport, and Milne doubled down on his commitment to promoting youth participation at Neshobe.
“It’s all about the kids,” Milne said. “If you don’t have kids at your facility, your days are numbered.”
He said Vermont does a good job of reaching golfers in rural areas like Brandon, and he wants to attract all ages to Neshobe.
“That’s our mission,” he said. “We want people of all different levels to come and play.”
Milne said he had spent the last 20 years looking for a golf course to buy, but gave up about 10 years ago.
“There wasn’t one that suited me,” he said. “They were either too expensive or they weren’t making money. I gave up looking. You can’t keep looking for something that doesn’t exist.”
So when he heard that Neshobe was for sale, he approached his family about buying it.
“I thought they would tell me I was crazy,” he said. “They didn’t. They said, ‘Looks like a good investment. Let’s do it.’”
And as proof that Vermont is just one, big small town, the lawn that Milne used to mow as a kid belonged to the parents of Brandon Town Clerk Sue Gage. The two grew up in Orleans in the Northeast Kingdom.
“I’ve known Susie Gage since we were kids,” Milne said. “She and my sister are best friends. I used to mow her parent’s lawn. They paid me $10.”
Now, the grass can’t grow soon enough for Milne.
“I’m as excited as I’ve been in 25 years,” he said.