Vineyards Golf Course in Fredonia, New York, is a main-street business, even if it’s located on a rural road two miles from the commercial hub of the 10,303-resident community.
Debbie Mancuso owns the 18-hole public course. Jason Goss manages it. Mancuso and Goss are western New Yorkers by birth, upbringing and nature. On Sundays from September through December — and well into January this past season — they pause to watch the Buffalo Bills. Buffalo, the metropolis in their cold and cozy region, is less than 50 miles from the clubhouse.
Mancuso and Goss are affable and loyal. Want a Labatt Blue or a Blue Light while playing the Vineyards? It costs $2.50.
“We sell beer for that low and they still try to sneak it on,” Mancuso says. “I tell them, ‘Come on, guys, we can’t sell it for much cheaper than that.’”
Mancuso knows beer and hospitality. She works as a manager and bartender at Dom Polski Club, a popular gathering spot in neighboring Dunkirk. She’s a golf savior in her hometown, purchasing nine stable holes in 2017 and nine dysfunctional holes in 2018 owned by different people with contrasting intentions to reestablish an 18-hole option for the community. Originally called Hillview Golf Course, the former grape vineyard’s golf history extends to 1936.
“It really hasn’t sunk in that I own all of this to be honest with you,” says Mancuso, sitting by a fireplace in the quaint, rustic, wood-paneled clubhouse on a mid-February afternoon. The clubhouse rests on the north side of Berry Road. The nine holes surrounding the structure required golf course CPR to get them back to playable again. “When I bought this side, one of the workers took me over to the pond, showed me something and I was looking around. He said, ‘Do you realize you own this?’ I said, ‘No, it hasn’t hit me. Wow, we have both sides now. We have an 18-hole golf course.’ It still doesn’t seem real.”
A half-foot of snow covers the course, as Mancuso and Goss reflect on their journey, triumphs, obstacles … and recent television appearance. Yes, Vineyards is made-for-TV material. Last year, during the start of the COVID-19 pandemic, Vineyards became one of seven Fredonia businesses featured on Season 5 of Deluxe’s Small Business Revolution. Host Amanda Brinkman combined with renovation personality Ty Pennington, the Deluxe team and business owners and managers to tell the story of an auto detailer, a hair salon, a floral studio, a pizza shop, a bakery, a volunteer agency, and a living, breathing — and, in 2020, unexpectedly booming — 160 acres of greenspace.
The characters and personalities worked with owners and operators to boost marketing and branding while Pennington led a project to improve the physical space of each respective business. Legends (Minnesota) Golf Club general manager/director of golf Mike Luckraft assisted Mancuso and Goss as part of the show. The cast quickly learned that renovating or purchasing equipment for a golf course is costly compared to an indoor main-street business. But the show appearance resulted in Vineyards receiving help building a new pole barn to host events.
The cameras caught how Vineyards handled the pandemic (quite well after enduring New York’s early spring golf shutdown), depicted part of the enormity involving golf course ownership and maintenance, and demonstrated Mancuso’s and Goss’s zest for satisfying customers who expect $2.50 (or cheaper) beers when playing golf.
“Debbie’s mission is really the democratization of golf,” Brinkman says. “Golf can be intimidating from the outside. There’s a lot of etiquette involved in the game and for her, as someone who joined the sport later in life, she just really wants to make the sport accessible and open to everyone. We just loved that mission.”
There’s plenty to relish about this small-town golf course transformation. And there’s no way to fit everything into a 34-minute television episode — or a six-page magazine profile. But let’s give it a shot.
So, you own a 9-hole golf course. Now what?
Mancuso answered that question by making a trip to Home Depot to hire Goss.
OK, it’s a bit more nuanced.
For starters, why did Mancuso want to own a golf course? She developed an interest in the game as an adult through participation in the Dom Polski league at Hillview. She heard the previous owner Rich Mancuso (no relation) wanted to retire from the golf business and sell the nine holes he owned, which was called Vineyards. Unsure of the land’s future as a recreational amenity for Fredonia, she offered to buy it. “The next thing I know we were at the lawyer’s office signing the papers,” she says.
She then went to Home Depot.
Goss managed the windows and doors department. Mancuso, who owns multiple rental properties, was a frequent customer. Goss’s golf-loving father, Randy, once worked as a Dom Polski bartender alongside Mancuso. Randy imparted a passion for golf into his son. Mancuso needed somebody with that passion for the game who knew the customers to oversee her new investment. She offered Goss a chance to become course manager, a position that required overseeing all aspects of the operation, including maintenance.
“Every time she saw me, she’d ask, ‘Did you think about it? Did you think about it?,’” Goss says. “I would try to play it out and figure out the pros and cons of leaving one job for another. I walked up to her one day and said, ‘I’m in!’ She said, ‘Really?’ I said, ‘I’m all in.’”
The Vineyards nine was well-managed and well-maintained. It featured a simple clubhouse, although it lacked a liquor license. No Labatt Blue or Blue Light … at least initially. Mancuso developed a straightforward business plan: solidify the nine, put the owners across the street out of business and return the course to 18 holes.
Hillview was an 18-hole course operated by the Porter family until the early 2000s. A family dispute resulted in the property becoming disjointed, leaving nine holes with separate owners on each side of Berry Road. The nine on the north side, the one called Hillview, with the pond and the clubhouse with a liquor license, was operated by absentee owners and the course became neglected. By the end of the 2018 season, Mancuso owned both nines. She would call the course Vineyards because of her loyalty to Rich Mancuso.
Next came the hardest part of the process: returning the second nine to playable condition. Corridors were overgrown with knee-high grass. Instead of connected turf, moss and dirt covered multiple greens. Goss insists one short par 3 was so gnarly golfers couldn’t identify the green from the tee box.
Nobody on the staff, which includes Scott Hazelton, Warren Faulkner, Bobby Kozlowski and Tommy Rozomolski, possessed formal turf education or golf renovation experience. But they had grit and connections. Goss and the team received help thinning grass from friends Adam Woelfle, Jim Rozen, Larry Gregorski, Kurt Wolnick, Kyle Goss, Matt Doler and Ernie Smith, in exchange for golf, beer and cookouts. A local farmer used his tractor to bale trimmed grass. Hazelton, Faulkner, Kozlowski and Rozomolski would maintain the functioning nine and then help resuscitate the other nine.
“I have friends that liked to golf who are teachers and they have summers off, so they would come down to help,” Goss says. “One guy who lost his job came down and said, ‘I have the summer off. Want me to do anything?’ We gave them pitchforks. They pitchforked all the hay we were chopping down and put it into a trailer.”
Seeing a determined team work exhaustively on the nine across the street sparked interest among customers. Goss drove them around the nine, explaining what they achieved and what they still needed to accomplish. Mancuso and Goss visited other courses in the region and because they are the only 18-hole public course in Fredonia, they found owners, general managers and superintendents receptive to providing guidance. Hazelton had befriended multiple superintendents through the years. Yes, golf courses are more congenial than giant home improvement warehouses. “Everybody is learning from everybody else around here and asking questions,” Goss says.
Mancuso and Goss were also fielding questions, none more frequent than when were they planning to reopen the second nine. They decided in August 2019 to conduct a few 18-hole events, including the annual Randy Goss Memorial tournament, conducted in Randy’s honor every summer since his death in 2000. The 5-foot-5 Randy drove a truck with golf stickers on the back, used oversized drivers and putters, and tinkered with clubs and techniques. “Dad was all about golf,” Goss says.
Asked what Randy would think of him rebuilding and managing the hometown course, Goss says, “He’d be excited. But he’d also probably be yelling at me about something.”
From Home Depot (and Walmart before that) to his father’s home course, Goss is now one of thousands in the golf industry unearthing innovative ways to execute a complex job. How does operating a golf course compare to managing a retail department?
“Totally different,” he says. “Everybody thinks working on a golf course is easy. Everybody wants to work on a golf course and mow grass when they retire. There’s a lot more to it than what anybody thinks.”
So, you now have an 18-hole course. Bring on the television cameras!
Through five seasons, more than 30,000 towns have been nominated for Small Business Revolution.
Competition for selection is fierce, with incentives ranging from exposure for a town (the show streams on Hulu and Amazon Prime) to a $500,000 revitalization from Deluxe for the community and its businesses. The field narrows to five and each town rallies to secure voter support. Nearly 1 million votes were cast for inclusion in the 2020 season, with Fredonia topping Benicia, California; Livingston, Montana; Spearfish, South Dakota; and The Dalles, Oregon.
“The entire western side of New York got behind them,” Brinkman says. “If that Buffalo area supports something, it’s going to happen.”
Employee Diane Edgerton nominated the course for Small Business Revolution. Show officials notified Goss and Mancuso via email of the selection and filming started in early March.
Remote conversations with Brinkman and her team became the norm over the next few months, as Deluxe scrambled to preserve the season. Mancuso and Goss were also scrambling to interpret state and county regulations for reopening golf courses last April while bracing for their first full season as an 18-hole operation.
After initial uneasiness, the show continued, with crews following strict testing and quarantine procedures during quick dashes into Fredonia to obtain footage to complement scenes filmed before the onset of COVID-19. The story surrounding Vineyards proved upbeat, as the course safely reopened and easily experienced its best year since Mancuso purchased it. An average 2020 peak season day consisted of 150 rounds, with busy days attracting as many as 250 players, according to Goss.
Brinkman and the Deluxe team collaborated with Mancuso and Goss on boosting their online presence, revamping the website, suggesting a system for online bookings and creating a new logo. Vineyards represented the first golf course featured on “Small Business Revolution,” creating new dilemmas for Brinkman and her team.
“From afar it appears that the golf industry, or running a course, is a very interesting challenge because it truly is four very different business models meshed into one, which we talked about in the episode,” Brinkman says. “But we really saw that up close working with Debbie at Vineyards. You’re running an event business, you’re running a course, which is entertainment, you’re running a food and beverage business, and you’re running a retail business.”
The entertainment part of the business has occupied most of Mancuso’s attention since purchasing the course. “This course looked like a hayfield,” Mancuso says of the nine on the north side of Berry Road. “It didn’t look like a golf course. We haven’t had a normal season. We get asked, ‘What’s your normal season like?’ We have no clue.”
The course remains Mancuso’s and Goss’s focus in 2021. The winter purchase of a 9-gang mower to maintain rough will reduce labor and fuel costs, allowing the crew to focus on other tasks such as completing the restoration of three original holes on the south side of the road. Old, clay irrigation pipe will continue to be replaced near greens. Fairway irrigation isn’t a technical issue, because neither side has it. As this year progresses, two nines with contrasting recent agronomic histories should further meld into one consistent layout.
Off the course, once the perils of COVID-19 pass, Mancuso wants Vineyards to become a community hub. Mancuso envisions customers purchasing fare from food trucks as they mingle on a porch illuminated by tiki torches. A long-term goal includes adding a golf simulator to make the course a year-round operation. Bills and brews, anyone?
Rebuilding projects offer few reflective opportunities. But Mancuso and Goss had a chance to celebrate their progress last fall, when the Vineyards course hosted a viewing party for the debut of the Small Business Revolution season featuring their community. It was a made-for-TV moment.
“I want the people to see that we are improving every year and giving them something better,” Mancuso says. “Ever since we had it, we are getting better and better. And hopefully we get to the point where people are talking about this course like crazy: ‘Hey, I want to go play Vineyards. You should see what they did with it.’”