The new owners of the old Wehrle Golf Dome in Clarence recently completed extensive renovations from roof to floor at the 23-year-old venue, and the changes are clear to the golfers flocking there to shake the winter rust off their game.
The venue was the first indoor driving range of its kind in the state when it opened in 1994, but it was badly in need of an update by the time Somerset Companies bought the dome in late 2015.
The developer last spring shut down the dome and in the fall began nearly six months of renovations that included putting in a new roof, new driving range stalls and a new turf. Somerset added a restaurant and bar just steps from the indoor range and new seating areas where golfers and their guests are encouraged to take their food and drinks.
The interior and exterior received an upgrade, featuring wood and stacked stone, and Somerset in the fall will begin renovations to the pro shop inside the dome – now renamed The Dome.
"It turned out very well. I think the new canopy makes it very bright in here. It seems to be much busier in here," said Charles Burlow, a retired Ford Stamping Plant electrician from Cheektowaga, who comes to the dome just about every Thursday during the off-season to improve his game.
The work on the dome came as Somerset and Regent Development and Construction continues building a $10 million luxury apartment development, Fireside Apartments, nearby on the site of the dome's former outdoor driving range. Crews broke ground last spring on 112 units in seven buildings wrapped around a large pond.
And Somerset recently completed an update of its existing upscale apartment complex, Coventry Apartments, also behind the dome.
"It just made sense to have this be part of the plan to create a walkable community where you could live here and then come over and play, and have dinner with your family," said Courtney Urchik, regional manager of Somerset Management Group. "It's an amenity for our residents."
Somerset bought the Coventry Apartments in 2002. The development has 216 units, a mix of one-, two- and three-bedroom apartments, on a Coventry Green Circle address off Wehrle Drive in Clarence.
Somerset, led by principal Brett Fitzpatrick, owns 13 housing developments, with about 2,500 units, primarily in the Buffalo area but also as far south as Erie, Pa., and as far east as Syracuse.
The company acquired the property where the dome's outdoor driving range was located in late 2015, with an eye toward building luxury apartments there.
That project, with Regent Development as the contractor, is called the Fireside Apartments. The complex includes a clubhouse that has a 75-inch TV mounted on a wall over a gas fireplace, soft leather banquettes and free coffee in the morning for tenants. It will open onto an in-ground swimming pool, fire pit and custom gas grill.
Somerset will start leasing the apartments in about a month and the first of the seven building should open to tenants by May. One-, two- and three-bedroom apartments will rent from $1,275 to $1,895 per month. Each apartment has a private balcony or patio, an in-unit fireplace and an in-unit washer and dryer.
The materials and colors used on the exterior of Fireside match those used in the redesign of the golf dome. "It's intended as a complement to the Dome," Urchik said.
Somerset also repainted and put new furniture in Coventry.
With Somerset owning housing to the northwest of the dome, and making plans to build new housing directly behind the dome to the north, Urchik said it made sense for the company to acquire the dome as well. That transaction closed in December 2015.
The dome at that point was showing its age. Its roof had been repaired once, after sustaining significant damage during the 2006 October Storm, but after 10 years it was nearing the end of its realistic lifespan and blocked as much light as it let through, patrons said.
"It was really sad," said Eddie Meadway, of Getzville, a retired electrician from Cooper Turbocompressor, who said the Wehrle dome stood in sharp contrast with the Paddock Chevrolet Golf Dome in the Town of Tonawanda.
Somerset closed the dome in the spring and in August its contractor, Regent Development, began the renovations. The Dome reopened Feb. 10. Somerset declined to say how much the work cost, but on its building permit application estimated the cost of the project at $125,000.
Somerset replaced the old roof with a new one produced by Arizona Building Systems. The company also installed a new turf and new hitting stalls.
Crews added a restaurant, staffed by Rich's Entertainment Services, just behind the golfers on the lower level, called Rule 26, a reference to the United States Golf Association rule that applies to balls hit into water hazards, said Michele Litwin, owner of the pro shop and manager of the dome.
"We saw an opportunity where the prior dome kind of needed a face lift and an increased energy and we partnered with Michele and Rich Products in creating an experience. Rather than just come and golf and leave, we have an enticement to stay a little longer," Urchik said.
The restaurant serves sandwiches, salads, fish tacos and chicken wings, among other pub fare.
The dome now has additional chairs, couches and tables set up behind the driving range stalls where people can eat their food and drink their beverages from Rule 26.
"We've never had food or beverage here," Litwin said near the driving range.
The owners kept the same prices for the driving range after reopening following the renovations. And they use golf balls from OnCore, a local producer, Litwin said.
The pro shop in the dome, Golf Headquarters, which has a separate ownership, will get its own update in the fall. A restaurant in the outer area of the dome, which had several incarnations but was best known as Murphy's, has closed and Somerset is weighing its options for that space.
Golfers using the reopened dome late last week said they were impressed with the changes.
"Now, this is a place you want to come, hang out, have a drink with a couple of buddies," said Aaron Bennett, of Buffalo, a city police officer, who said he comes to the dome once a week in the winter. "It took long enough, but I'm happy with what they've done."
Laurie Kitchen, a Hamburg resident who works in real estate sales, said she wished the owners hadn't taken out the outdoor driving range and the indoor putting green, which was removed to create more space for seating. Urchik said Somerset is planning to put in a replacement at some point.
But Kitchen said she likes the addition of the restaurant and bar at the driving range. "The sitting area is beautiful," she said.