Visionaries See Golf in Their Future

The Gorge Amphitheater in north-central Washington is considered by many music aficionados to be the premier concert venue in the world. Situated on a high bluff overlooking the vast Columbia River near the town of George, the 20,000-seat arena crafted by Mother Nature is a unique “acoustic property” blessed with incredible sound qualities as well as magnificent vistas of the river, the Cascade Mountains and broad expanses of high desert farmlands.

The folks who founded the Gorge Amphitheater in 1985, Vince and Carol Bryan, sold it in 1993. But the couple still owned several hundred acres, and they’re now in the process of developing an “arts-based resort,” one which will include an 18-hole golf course that will feature the same natural attributes as the neighboring concert venue.

Sagecliffe will be an eco-friendly resort perched on benchland above the mighty Columbia. Besides golf, visitors will be able to eat, relax and mingle with artists, scientists and intellectuals. The Bryans, who own 238 of the 500 acres needed for the facility, are currently in negotiations with the U.S. Department of Interior Bureau of Reclamation for the remaining acreage. According to a report by Paul de Barros in the October 12 Seattle Times, the lease agreement is a “done deal.”

The couple certainly has the wherewithal to develop the resort. After selling the amphitheater, Vince, a retired neurosurgeon, co-founded Spinal Dynamics in 1995, a company that was sold in 2002 for $270 million. The Bryans, who are also lining up other investors for Sagecliffe – a project expected to cost upwards of $70 million, are now working with Grant County for approval of the master plan.

With design help from Seattle's Olson Sundberg Kundig, the Bryans plan to develop a “minimalist” golf course, one that follows the natural contours of the land and requires very little earthmoving. To encourage golfers to get in touch with the environment, carts will not be allowed – a la Bandon Dunes – except for players with physical disabilities.

In addition to the golf course, Sagecliffe will contain 18 single-family dwellings – called “founder homes,” 50 to 60 condominiums, a 30- to 40-room main lodge, restaurant, and 240 additional rental units. Also planned are an indoor and outdoor theater, a half-dozen artist studios, a gourmet restaurant, culinary center, conference center, golf clubhouse with a pro shop, equestrian center, and “arts vistas” scattered about the property.

Vince Bryan certainly has a worldly vision for Sagecliffe. “We would like to have the opportunity to create a place where we’re not only celebrating the richness of the planet,” he told de Barros, “but the greatness of mankind. We think people are thirsty for this.”

The Bryans, who met in high school in Chicago, originally bought the property in 1980 to grow wine grapes. But the amphitheater idea shelved that plan. But after selling what’s popularly called “The Gorge,” the couple developed their winery, called Cave B. In April, they began construction on the Inn at Cave B, a relatively small development with 15 stand-alone rental units, a 12-room inn and a lodge and conference center.

The genesis for Sagecliffe stems from Vince’s experiences during his medical residency at Northwestern University in Evanston, Ill. “Every month,” he said, “my surgery professor would invite the greatest of the profession, worldwide, to come to Northwestern. We would meet them at the airport and talk the talk, walking shoulder to shoulder, getting to know them as individuals, feeling their presence and understanding their genius. That was one of the great thrills of my life.”

Another inspiration was the environment. “We never really felt like we owned this land,” Vince told de Barros. “It was almost a natural-park situation.”

Vince, who says wine and architecture are his passions, plans to use local materials and integrate the architecture into the endemic landforms, just like the natural music hall that preceded the resort. “The environment says, ‘This is what I am, just complete the process,’ much like the amphitheater was an amphitheater long before we got there,” Vince said.

Local officials are generally “positive” about the project, with the Bryans hoping they’ll receive approval from the state and county in March 2005. The couple have proven in the past that their ideas can benefit the area; the Gorge Amphitheater has pumped millions into the local economy, while creating a major boost in tax revenue and creating dozens of jobs.

Also abetting their cause is a change in the expectations of the modern traveler. “People are looking for experiential travel,” said Tracey Wickersham, director of cultural tourism for Seattle’s Convention and Visitors Bureau. “They want something unique and enriching, and they really are willing to go off the beaten path to find it.”

Seattle booking agent Mark Solomon, who arranged the first concerts at the Gorge in 1985, said the Bryans are just the people to provide that kind of experience. “They’ve always been visionaries,” he told de Barros. “And I think they’re pretty canny, too.”

For golfers, Sagecliffe’s new course – located off Interstate 90 about two hours east of Seattle – could be ready for play in 2007. As they say in the music business, stay tuned.