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Rookery North future to include Big Oyster Brewery

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The Rookery North golf course in Milford in winter 2023. Big Oyster Brewery. | DBT PHOTO BY KATIE TABELING

The former clubhouse at the Rookery North will be turned into a Milford location for Big Oyster Brewery, confirmed representatives from Fins Hospitality Group. | DBT PHOTO BY KATIE TABELING

MILFORD — A father-and-son team is looking to sign a lease with Fins Hospitality Group to bring Big Oyster Brewery to the former Rookery North, as part of its plans to revive the golf course as a major draw for the city.

Tim and Matt Johnson outlined general plans to reopen the 18-hole golf course, with renovations and landscape work putting the target to reopen the first nine holes by September. Fins Hospitality Group owner Jeff Hamer plans to open Big Oyster at the Links at the same time, after a $2 million renovation of the existing clubhouse.

“We’re going to need complete renovations for the kitchen and the existing pro-shop, because it’s going to need some work,” Hamer told the Delaware Business Times. “I’m really excited about this, because Milford is an exceptional community that needs a place to go and gather, and we’re hoping to fill that need.”

The Johnsons plan on opening the final nine holes of the golf course by June 2024. The course will retain its original layout, with most of the intervening course work going to landscaping and the irrigation system. The former pool house will also be turned into a pro shop for visitors.

Combined, the golf course and Big Oyster plan on hiring around 100 employees, with 75 employees at the brewpub and 25 employees at the course.

“We’re really excited about the golf course, and it’s such an asset for the community,” Tim Johnson told the Milford Planning Commission on Tuesday night. “To me, country clubs are a thing of the past. Now it’s for public use – and we plan on doing that with some added attractions. This restaurant venue with the brew pub would be ideal to mix together.”

Built in 1957 as the Shawnee Country Club, the course was a mainstay in the Milford community. By 2011, ownership was transferred and the club was rebranded the Rookery North as the second location of the Milton golf club The Rookery. 

However, the 156-acre golf course never turned a profit in the nine years under Rookery management and the five years under its ownership, according to the Delaware State News.

The Rookery North closed in 2021. It was bought by Timothy Johnson in December for $3.8 million.

Timothy Johnson has been in the Milford business community since 1985, with his family’s first project being building Airpark Plaza on U.S. Route 113. 

Later on, Johnson sold land in 2000 to Milford for a business park on Airport Road. That project became Independence Commons, which has tenants like the  Delaware Veterans Home, Delaware Hospice, the Greater Milford Boys and Girls Club, and several existing office buildings. 

The future Food Bank of Delaware will also be built in Independence Commons, as Johnson bought the land and donated it back to the city.

Meanwhile, Hamer said he had been trying to break into the Milford community for about four years. Fins Hospitality Group has Fins Ale House and Raw Bar locations in Rehoboth Beach and Fenwick Island, Big Oyster Brewery in Lewes and Claws Seafood in Rehoboth.

“I don’t think the amenities are quite there for the population in Milford,” Hamer said. “So many people have been priced out of the beach, and yet they have to drive either there or to Dover for a nice restaurant. And the beach communities are getting a little saturated with these concepts.”

Hamer has reportedly tried four locations in his quest to expand to Milford, including the Silicato business park off Route 1 and an industrial park in Milford city limits with incompatible zoning.

The Johnsons approached Hamer with the opportunity to take over the 9,000-square-foot clubhouse on a lease basis. Over time, Hamer intends to purchase the property.

Big Oyster on the Links will have 200 seats and ideally would also double as an event venue for the MIlford community as well, he said.

The Milford Planning Commission on Tuesday night voted to recommend rezoning 3.8 acres of the Rookery North, specifically the area that includes the clubhouse, from residential district to neighborhood commercial.

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