Saturday, August 23, 2014
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Golf clubs in financial rough

Ex-Woodbury Country Club board member Jerry Campbell, who lives adjacent, says he hopes to find a buyer interested in maintaining the course. (Elizabeth Robertson / Staff)
Ex-Woodbury Country Club board member Jerry Campbell, who lives adjacent, says he hopes to find a buyer interested in maintaining the course. (Elizabeth Robertson / Staff)

The sign outside the Woodbury Country Club advertises memberships, but the clubhouse is boarded up. No one is waiting to groom the greens of the nine-hole course once the snow melts or to wipe down members' clubs after a morning round.

"It breaks my heart to see it that way," said longtime member Gloria Lou Green. "It's like a beautiful woman that looks ugly now."

The Cooper Street club, founded in 1897, filed for bankruptcy, then closed last fall. Its greens and fairways could be carved into house lots in the coming years, a casualty in an industry that has too many courses and not enough golfers to play them.

Nationally, closures have outpaced openings since 2006, with a net loss of 90 courses last year alone, according to the National Golf Foundation.

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In the Philadelphia region, recent closures include General Washington Golf Course in Audubon, Ashbourne Country Club in Cheltenham, and Woods Golf Center in Norristown, all in Montgomery County. The Blue Heron Pines Golf Club East Course in, Galloway Township, Atlantic County, closed, though a sister course remained open.

While such closures may be what the industry needs to rebalance supply and demand, this one marks a piece of Woodbury's history lost. To members like Green, it is personal.

Green's husband, Jack, was the grandson of an original member. George Gill Green was a regional power broker in the late 1800s and is credited with bringing in Alexander Findlay, called by some "the father of American golf," to redesign the course after the turn of the 20th century.

At 85, Gloria Lou Green played the short but challenging course as many as five times a week until it closed. She remembers the days, 50 years ago, when professional golfers would play exhibitions here. The clubhouse bustled with musical performances, fashion shows, and weddings.

But the lifestyle of golfers has changed.

"The old days of where a guy would join a country club and just go play golf all weekend are gone," said president Stephen Kocinski.

Though the course closed in October, Kocinski said it had been dying for years.

The club was operating at a loss and couldn't pay lingering bank debt from a 1991 renovation. Each time the board asked members for money to cover expenses - on top of $3,700 yearly dues and required monthly spending - more would leave. Membership dropped from as high as 300 six years ago to about 80, Kocinski said.

The club filed for Chapter 11 bankruptcy in August. It owed $2.16 million to Parke Bank and $504,000 in other debt.

The board had hoped an investor would help the club reopen this year. But the deal fell through, and the bankruptcy converted to Chapter 7, for liquidation.

Opportunities to market the property as a golf course are limited, said Bryant K. Lafferty a commercial broker with RE/MAX Connection in Marlton, hired by the bankruptcy trustee to develop a marketing plan.

"It's a cute little club, but, at the end of the day, most people want to play 18 holes," Lafferty said. "The golfers have such a selection out there."

Lafferty said he is hoping to sell the 50-acre property for about $3.25 million.

As a golf course, it is appraised at just over $2 million. But Lafferty has begun talking with city officials about building as many as 200 homes for luxury and first-time buyers. The clubhouse could be sold as a catering facility, he said.

Former board member Jerry Campbell said he is holding out hope that a buyer interested in maintaining the course will come along.

Campbell resigned his 15-year membership early last year after his golfing buddies had all left. But he thinks the nine-hole course could attract today's time-strapped golfer.

He has a greater interest than most. His home sits just off the first hole.

"Certainly the value of the whole neighborhood is tied in to this," he said.

Campbell and Kocinski expressed doubt at just how many homes could fit on the property and who would buy them. Lafferty said the development could be phased in as the economy improves.

The recession came at a bad time for golf, on the tail of an industry expansion in which hundreds of new courses were opened each year.

Private clubs, with their hefty dues, face a particular challenge. Nationally, 15 percent of private clubs were struggling at the time of a 2008 National Golf Foundation study.

After nine years of growth, the Golf Association of Philadelphia saw about a 7 percent decline in membership at the 140 private clubs it represents throughout the region.

Executive director Mark Peterson said the clubs that survive will be those that offer family amenities: pools, tennis courts, fitness centers, and a vibrant social scene.

"With fewer facilities, there will be greater opportunities for those survival facilities to become profitable again," Peterson said.

According to the 2008 study, private clubs more often go public than close. The Ballamor Golf Club in Egg Harbor, N.J., has taken that approach.

The private club filed for Chapter 11 bankruptcy on Nov. 20 with more than $5 million in debt. It was "well short" of the 300 members it needed to sustain itself, said director of marketing Liz Norton-Scanga.

As part of the reorganization, the course opened this winter to all comers. A round now costs between $58 and $105 for the public and is discounted for members. Dues for those who choose to join - for locker space and other perks - are less than one-tenth what they were.

It's too early to tell how successful the transition will be, but Norton-Scanga said people are curious about the once off-limits course. Nearly 500 signed up for the chance to participate in a grand-opening event.

In Woodbury, going public didn't seem viable to Kocinski. The club opened its restaurant to the public two years ago.

"We couldn't get them to come eat dinner there, so I don't know if I could have gotten them to play golf there," he said.

Lafferty said he hopes to present the bankruptcy court with a buyer within six months.

 


Contact staff writer Chelsea Conaboy at 856-779-3893 or cconaboy@phillynews.com.

Inquirer staff writer Joe Juliano contributed to this article.

Chelsea Conaboy Inquirer Staff Writer
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