Wilmette, Community

Canal Shores picks outside firm to manage, ‘enhance’ century-old community golf course

Canal Shores Golf Course is letting KemperSports play through.

The century-old track is outsourcing its operations to Northbrook-based Kemper in a decision made Thursday, Jan. 20, by the Evanston Wilmette Golf Course Association, the group that governs the nonprofit, community golf course.

“A company like Kemper has tremendous resources,” said Karl Leinberger, EWGCA president. “ … They can apply their expertise in a variety of different sectors, buy things at lower prices. For us, if we want to elevate to the next level, and show improvement in the way the course plays for golfers, bringing in a company like Kemper is just a win-win.”

Canal Shores previously relied on a four-person team and volunteers to run the course’s day-to-day operations. Leinberger said course employees will now be managed by Kemper. 

Leinberger said Canal Shores was not necessarily looking for a management partner, but mutual acquaintances put the organizations on a converging path. 

Kemper President Josh Lesnik, a North Shore native, said he walked Canal Shores recently and the visit solidified an interest in the community course.

“Our mission really aligned with them — golf, youth development, ecology and community,” Lesnik said. “It made a lot of sense and they thought bringing us in would accomplish their goals.”

Canal Shores is surrounded by historic oak trees and features views of the Baha’i Temple in Wilmette.

Canal Shores is a 3,600-yard, par-60 course that straddles Evanston and Wilmette on 82 acres of land owned by the Metropolitan Water Reclamation District land along the waters of the North Shore Channel.

Built in 1919, the course was originally named after Peter Jans, an Evanston man who believed there needed to be less expensive and more accessible options to play the game of golf.

That original mission also spoke to Lesnik and Kemper. 

“Our country needs accessible, affordable golf that’s casual and fun — and good golf as well,” he said. “ … Golf has a stodgy reputation. That is changing. Canal Shores is really charming golf and it’s certainly challenging enough.”

KemperSports is a 44-year-old company that manages 120 recreation facilities, including local golf course like The Glen Club in Glenview, Deerpath Golf Course in Lake Forest and Royal Melbourne Country Club in Long Grove. 

According to a press release, Kemper plans to spearhead improvements in multiple categories, including gameplay, youth development and social experience. 

First thing’s first, according to Leinberger: the course, which he said sustained substantial wear and tear during the pandemic. 

According to its annual reports, Canal Shores welcomed 20,000 rounds of golf in 2020, a 67 percent increase over the 12,000 rounds played in 2019 and 2018, respectively.

“We had a lot of foot traffic the last year and half,” he said. “There were a lot of rounds played on the course. It needs a little care to come back up to where we want it to be and then improve beyond that.” 

More specifically, Lesnik said the grass on the Canal Shores greens must be repaired and the course’s irrigation system needs upgrading. 

Outside of that, he said it will take a team effort to identify issues and efficiently improve from there.

“It doesn’t need to be a private club,” Lesnik said. “ … That’s part of the reason they brought us in.”

Canal Shores’ youth programs welcome hundreds of participants each year.

Another reason, he said, is Kemper’s reputation for enhanced gathering spaces and hospitality arrangements.

Canal Shores does not have a sitdown dining option on-site. It features a concession stand in-course and frequently partners with Evanston’s American Legion post for events. 

Lesnik said Canal Shores is a community golf course that should offer a sense of community and will brainstorm how to do that.

“It’s really about hospitality and service and creating a sense of place in the clubhouse and on the patio,” he said. “It’s a tradition for some golfers to grab a sandwich or a hot dog before golf or hanging out for a drink or food after.  … how do we create that atmosphere?”

Canal Shores also offers a robust youth program and this summer, is partnering with The Golf Practice for even more training and camp offerings. Lesnik said Kemper hopes to build on from there and bring in the Western Golf Association’s prestigious Evans Scholarship program.

Kemper and the EWGCA are also committed to progressing on the course’s master ecology plan developed in 2016 thanks to a planning grant.

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joe coughlin
Joe Coughlin

Joe Coughlin is a co-founder and the editor in chief of The Record. He leads investigative reporting and reports on anything else needed. Joe has been recognized for his investigative reporting and sports reporting, feature writing and photojournalism. Follow Joe on Twitter @joec2319

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