Economy tough on rural country clubs

Matt Trowbridge

Scott Pless vows “Rock River Country Club will always be around,” but doesn’t know “in what capacity.”

The 96-year-old country club in Rock Falls filed bankruptcy this year and is now being run by a local bank.

“With the loss of jobs in upper management, or any management position, it makes it a tough go for country clubs,” said Pless, Rock River’s PGA pro and general manager.

Many of the nation’s 4,400 private golf clubs have been struggling since the 9/11 terror attacks and Congress taking away club membership as a corporate tax deduction.

“Companies used that as a perk to attract top people. That’s gone,” said Randy David, the interim general manager at Freeport Country Club. “A very high percentage of our members in our peak years were paid by businesses. Now it’s much smaller.”

And times are now tougher than ever with the economic downturn.

“If you are Cherry Hills in Denver, you might be OK, but not if you are in Sterling,” said Ron Keith, who along with his son bought the former Dixon Country Club two years ago and turned it into semiprivate Timber Creek.

“It’s toughest in small towns. The one right next door (Rock River) just filed bankruptcy, and two or three other ones are probably going to be closing in the area. It’s a terrible struggle.”

Rockford clubs steady

Nonprofit 990 tax records show Rockford’s three country clubs — Forest Hills, Mauh-Nah-Tee-See and Rockford Country Club — held steady between 2004-2007, raising their combined revenue $100,000 a year, from $9.3 million to $9.6 million. But it isn’t easy.

Forest Hills officials wouldn’t comment for this story and RCC officials wouldn’t go into membership numbers, but Mauh-Nah-Tee-See GM Mike VanSistine said MNTS membership dropped “10 to 15 percent” in the last year and a half.

“But we’re actually more profitable at this time than we were a year ago,” VanSistine said.

Some of that is because MNTS has always run on a tighter budget: $2.31 million in 2007 vs. $3.29 million for Forest Hills and $4.05 million for RCC. And part of it is because MNTS is finding other ways to make money.

“We maximize the outside business we do,” VanSistine said. “We either do a wedding or an event almost every Saturday.”

That means Easter egg hunts and Easter brunch, breakfasts with Santa and pool parties.

Family affairs

“Family events keep families together,” VanSistine said. “It’s the new club of today.”

The trick is to keep families together at country clubs. Because if they don’t, family ties will pull members away.

“Years ago, if a kid played baseball, he went by himself,” said Leo Gildea, president of Rochelle Country Club. “Now the parents take the kids every place. They don’t walk anymore.”

The Rochelle club has lost its family feeling and now relies on the quality of the course and its exclusivity to retain members.

“We have four women out there playing cards right now on Ladies Day,” Gildea said one Wednesday. “In years past, we’d have 20 or 25 playing. But they’ve gotten older and don’t use the club as much. We’ll have dances at the club and come 11 o’clock the place is empty. We don’t get nearly as many people out as we used to.”

Gildea said the average Rochelle member is “probably 65 and above,” but said the club won’t go semiprivate to attract younger players, as Timber Creek and Oregon Country Club have done.

“If you become semiprivate, you eliminate the social aspect, because anybody can come in,” Gildea said. “We would not recover enough from greens fees to make it worth our while.”

Different approaches

The three ways to stay afloat in these tough times seem to be: cut prices, open your club up to outsiders or trumpet the exclusive charms you already have.

Rockford Country Club chooses the last option.

“We try really hard to treat each member so that he or she feels it would be difficult to leave the club,” GM Al Pondel said. “Instead of going to destination clubs in Florida or Georgia, hopefully, they feel they are getting greater value for their money at their local club.”

Bel-Mar has tried all three options. The 90-year-old Belvidere club opened its doors to the public for the first time four years ago, allowing daily fee play for a month in April 2005. Bel-Mar did the same in 2006, but has gone back to strictly private the past two years.

Bel-Mar is now running specials. Bel-Mar runs on a much tighter budget than Rockford’s three clubs — tax records show only $513,000 in expenses in 2007, but even that was a $43,000 loss. Bel-Mar is now offering “guest” memberships for $800, a $500 savings from its $1,300 single membership.

“We’re offering that deal to get people out here to see what we’re all about,” Bel-Mar pro Matt Peterson said. He said the deal has attracted 30 new members to the “blue-collar” club, offsetting the 20 lost members from last year.”

Mauh-Nah-Tee-See, down to a 10-year low of 230 members, offers a one-month trial membership for the price of one month’s dues. VanSistine said 70 percent of the first trial group joined full-time, bringing in 17 new members.

Freeport CC opened in the late 1890s — “We’re the oldest continuously running country club in the state,” David said — but can be a virtual unknown in a mid-sized town that also boasts a standout 36-hole municipal complex in Park Hills East and West. To combat that, Freeport CC opened its dining room to the public for lunch.

“It’s a great advertising tool to get people in here to dine,” David said. “The dining room overlooks the 18th hole and first hole.”

David, a longtime club member, also hopes to attract as many as 70 new members by dropping the $1,500 initiation fee.

“Our rural country clubs,” David said, “are going to continue to be in trouble unless we are willing to change our ways. We have to be open to new ways of encouraging membership and bring our dues structures more in line with current economic conditions.”

Meanwhile, country club leaders all over the area are crossing their fingers.

“We’re doing what we can,” Bel-Mar pro Peterson said, “with what we’ve got. Hopefully, we’ll get through it and come out clean on the other side.”

Assistant sports editor Matt Trowbridge can be reached at 815-987-1383

or mtrowbridge@rrstar.com.