RiverRidge at 25: A complex celebration

By Ron Bellamy | Golf, Oregon |

Like golf itself, RiverRidge’s birthday is a mix of drive and loss

The trees were more like bushes when Ric Jeffries started to plant them, 25 years ago, on a stretch of fertile farmland along the Willamette River.

He planted them in groves, to delineate the fairways of the golf course he was designing and building, to create coloring and shadowing and to require shot-making — and to offer golfers some protection from errantly struck balls.

A quarter-century later, the trees at RiverRidge Golf Course have flourished, those that survived the worst winter storms and snows, spectacular in their diversity, their roots deep.

“It’s turned into a pretty attractive, very unusual golf course,” Jeffries said.

As it approaches its official 25th birthday — the driving range opened in November 1988, the first nine holes in June 1989, and the second nine in April 1990 — RiverRidge remains the only public, regulation-length 18-hole course in the metro area.

Golfers of all ages and abilities play there, and about 25 people work there, full time and part time, including seasonal help. Arguably, through various programs held at RiverRidge — the First Tee, for youngsters; physical education classes for University of Oregon and Lane Community College students; lessons and sessions on the practice range; Special Olympics programs — more golfers are introduced to the game there than anywhere else in Lane County.

At RiverRidge, now officially part of north Eugene, Ric and Debbie Jeffries put down roots, too.

They built a house in the middle of the golf course, on a plateau that Mr. Jeffries envisioned as the ninth green until Mrs. Jeffries envisioned it as a homesite.

They reared their two children, now grown, in the home on the golf course. They built a smaller cottage for Debbie’s parents, where her mother still resides. And they grew the golf course as co-owners and partners — Ric, a certified PGA professional, in charge of the golf course itself, Debbie, with an MBA from Stanford University, running the business side of the operation.

Over the 25 years since they broke ground on RiverRidge in June 1988, the Jeffries have added two adjacent smaller courses on the east side of North Delta Highway — a nine-hole executive course called SuttonRidge, and a par-three course called ShortRidge — and battled the economic storms that have pelted the golf industry nationally, and Eugene locally.

A few years ago, the Jeffries found themselves in the rough, embroiled in controversy after they entered an agreement to sell part of the main course to the owners of McKenzie-Willamette for a new hospital, a deal that fell through.

That raised questions about the future of the golf course, and there were more this year when the Jeffries successfully sought to have 110 acres of the golf course complex annexed to the city of Eugene. (The entire complex covers about 160 acres, and now about 135 acres of it are within the city limits, with the remainder not within the Urban Growth Boundary. The portion within the growth boundary is largely designated in the long-term Metro Plan for low-density residential use, with some medium-density residential use.)

Annexation, required for the extension of urban services such as sewers and storm water management, is generally considered a precursor to development, but the Jeffries insist RiverRidge isn’t going away, and that they aren’t going anywhere. They would like to sell off about 15 acres — the area covered by Shortridge at the corner of North Delta Highway and Ayres Road — to developers, and earlier this month submitted the rezoning request that would allow residential development.

Meanwhile, on RiverRidge itself, they’ve planted about 25 pinot noir vines, with another acre of pinot noir going in adjacent to SuttonRidge.

And they’ve planted 10 new trees.

Change of plans

Now married for 40 years — they met on a blind date in college, while Ric was attending Oregon State and Debbie was at the University of Oregon — the Jeffries weren’t planning to build a golf course when they began looking at property in the Eugene-Springfield area in the late 1980s. They were living in Florida, where Ric was the teaching pro at a nine-hole course with a driving range; they envisioned building their own driving range here, along with batting cages for baseball and softball, following the model of a successful business in the Washington, D.C., area.

One day in 1987, Ric Jeffries had just returned to Florida from an unsuccessful trip to the Eugene area in search of property when he got a phone call from his broker, Jeff Elder. “He said, ‘a farm came on the market today. I think it’s something you need to look at,’” Jeffries recalled. “The farm was this one.”

Ric and Debbie Jeffries flew back to Eugene the next day. The farm had been settled by the Ayres family in 1851; the original farm house had burned down and been rebuilt in the 1890s. Originally, the Jeffries only wanted an option to purchase part of the property, about 25 acres at the southern end, but Dave Malpass, the grass seed farmer who showed them that piece of the property, urged them to see the entire farm.

“He said, ‘you know, I’m not in your business, but I do like golf, and I think this would make a pretty nice golf course,’” Debbie Jeffries recalled.

They negotiated a deal for 107 acres — “virtually a handshake,” Ric Jeffries said — with Nellie Sutton and other heirs of the Ayres family, and as Ric began designing the golf course, they negotiated major deals for irrigation, development and grass seed with supportive local businessmen including Taylor Ramsey, Rob Durbin and Malpass.

Ric and Debbie and their children — Courtney, then 6, and Jordan, then 3 — moved in to the old farmhouse. The wiring was antiquated, the insulation was sawdust and that first winter, the winter of the 1989 “Siberian Express,” the water in the toilet bowl would freeze. They built their own house in 1992, Ric moving the location for the ninth green, a par 3, down below it.

Debbie Jeffries said, given the choice, she’d do it all again.

“Oh yeah, absolutely,” she said. “And I’d live on the property, and I’d raise a family there, and I’d work with my husband. There’s nothing I would change. It’s about as close to hitting the lottery without hitting it.”

Tough times

But not every gamble has been a winner. In 1996, the Jeffries purchased an additional 60 acres of the east side of North Delta Highway. Originally, they envisioned an additional nine holes, interspersed with housing, but changed plans when they realized they’d have to add two roads that would cut across the middle of the fairways.

So they sold just over 20 acres to a developer and proposed the two smaller courses, “The Nines at RiverRidge,” to serve, in part, as a learning environment — “our own farm system,” Debbie Jeffries said — and a quicker alternative for golfers not wanting to play a full 18-hole round. However, it took six years to get the necessary permits from the city of Eugene, a highly frustrating and costly delay. Carrying the debt on the land proved financially burdensome, construction costs rose, and when the courses did open, in 2003 after a year of construction, golfers still gravitated toward the “grip it and rip it” lure of the regulation course, while the struggles of the golf industry nationally and the economy locally provided “a perfect storm” of bad news.

While the Jeffries decline to offer specific information about the volume of play at RiverRidge, they say generally that the golf course had steady growth from 1988 through 2002. From 2002 through 2005, golf industry growth slowed and then began a decline through 2011.

In 2005, the Jeffries saw a way to ease some of their debt problem; they agreed to sell part of the back nine of RiverRidge — roughly, the area occupied by the 10th, 14th and 18th fairways — to the owners of McKenzie-Willamette for a new hospital. The Jeffries, who planned to have their house moved across the street to The Nines, would continue operating nine holes at RiverRidge, the driving range and The Nines.

The deal fell through in 2008, but by then it had become a public relations nightmare for the Jeffries, faced with neighborhood opposition to construction of the hospital, concerns about traffic at the already-jammed Belt Line/Delta interchange and fears about the prospects of the golf course land.

“When we signed the agreement, in our minds, we decided, ‘this is fine, it’s just this one chunk, it gets us out of debt,’” Debbie Jeffries said. “We weren’t going anywhere. Everyone seems to think (we were) …

“We sat in a meeting of the neighbors and they called us liars. We were the big, bad people.”

One day, Ric Jeffries recalled, they were in the parking lot at Home Depot when a man they didn’t know stepped in front of their car, made an obscene gesture, and walked inside the store.

“It was a tough time,” he said. “We just kind of pulled back and went and hid a little bit.”

The effect remains.

“Economically, it would have sure been nice,” Ric Jeffries said. “And it killed our business. It killed our business.”

Last year, Debbie Jeffries said, RiverRidge finally saw an upswing in play, but “far from the steady growth realized in the first 12 years of our operation.”

The future

On July 1, the Jeffries submitted a request to the city of Eugene to change the zoning on The Nines from agricultural to residential, in preparation for possible sale of about 15 acres — roughly, the area of ShortRidge — to developers. (RiverRidge itself is already zoned for residential development.)

The par 3 course “makes no money, costs us a lot of money,” Debbie Jeffries said. The goal is to sell that portion to “reduce debt and make this a viable business,” she said.

Though they’d like to see their children more often — Courtney, who played softball at Washington, works in the Bay Area for the Pac-12 Conference, managing ticket sales for championship events; Jordan is the cellar master at a winery in Napa Valley — Ric Jeffries, 63, and Debbie Jeffries, 62, say they can envision themselves running the golf course for another decade.

“Our lifestyle is different than anybody else’s,” Ric Jeffries said. “We walk to work, or take a golf cart with the dogs. We are never, ever off stage. That’s not necessarily bad … We are in the hospitality industry, we’re a little bit in the entertainment industry, and we’re in the development and promotion of the game.”

After 25 years in the business, the Jeffries are proud of their role in “growing the game,” and proud, too, of the now-mature golf course, a par 71 at 6,335 yards from the blue tees, that Ric designed.

With all those trees — more than 1,200, covering 120 species and earning Audubon Society recognition — and the greens in good shape under superintendent Brian King, RiverRidge is a test even as technology tends to make short courses obsolete.

“This was my dream,” Ric Jeffries said. “There’s a very small population of people who own a golf course. There’s a very small population of people who get to design a golf course, even smaller. But there’s an even smaller population of people who get to do both.

“That’s what I got to do, and I got to do it with my lifelong partner. How can you not want to do that? It’s just too cool.”

RiverRidge Golf Course timeline

June 1988: Ric and Debbie Jeffries, having just closed a deal to purchase 107 acres of farmland, originally farmed by Palmer and Mary Ayres in the 1860s, break ground on the proposed golf course that Ric is designing.

November 1988: Jordan Jeffries, then 3, is the photograph with a Register-Guard story on the opening of the golf course driving range and practice area.

June 1989: Nellie Sutton, 88-year-old granddaughter of the Ayres’, hits the ceremonial first tee shot as the golf course opens its first nine holes.

April 1990: PGA Tour player Peter Jacobsen, along with Oregon football coach Rich Brooks and men’s basketball coach Don Monson, are the headliners as RiverRidge opens the back nine, giving Eugene its first regulation-sized 18-hole course since Oakway Golf Course was shortened in 1974.

May 1996: The Jeffries purchase about 60 acres of land on the east side of North Delta Highway, across from RiverRidge, and ultimately plan two nine-hole courses. However, it takes six years to acquire the necessary permits, and construction does not begin until 2002.

May 2003: The first of two new courses, ShortRidge, a par-3 pitch and putt, opens, followed a month later by SuttonRidge, a nine-hole executive course named in honor of Nellie Sutton.

November 2005: McKenzie-Willamette Medical Center reaches a contingency agreement with the Jeffries to purchase a portion of the back nine at RiverRidge to build a new hospital.

January 2008: McKenzie-Willamette announces that it is withdrawing consideration for the so-called Delta Ridge site.

May 2013: After Eugene City Council approval, an additional 110 acres of RiverRidge is annexed into the city, putting roughly 135 acres of the site within the city limits.

 

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