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Private country clubs hope they're out of the rough

ST. PETERSBURG

The recession took a toll on most private clubs as they lost members and cut costs, yet had to improve or at least maintain facilities to attract new clients. Now, as the economy recovers, local clubs are seeing fewer members drop out but still face challenges as they are viewed as a luxury in a more cost-conscious society.

The 88-year-old St. Petersburg Country Club signed on with an outside management company 18 months ago and is undergoing a financial restructuring. Though the number of memberships is close to what it was before the recession, money is still tight since fee structures have changed. The club failed to pay $54,000 in 2011 property taxes this year.

"Our tax situation will certainly be taken care of. It's all part of our restructuring of financing and our business plan," said Mike Kiernan, president of the club located in the Lakewood Estates neighborhood. "I would certainly hope by the end of summer we will be through all of this and ready to move on to the next stage."

He said the club's bank is willing to work with it because membership has remained steady and shareholders are supportive. There are 673 members, 357 of whom are golf members.

Part of the reason membership has bounced back but there is still a financial struggle is that many new members have abbreviated programs and are paying less in fees and dues. The club offers seasonal memberships, for example, with initiation fees of $125 for golf, $110 for tennis and $35 for swimming, with monthly dues of $165, $85 and $69, respectively.

Those rates are actually up from past years in an effort to limit memberships because too many summer members crowded the club. Still, it's reaching out to a bigger audience by running commercials on local television.

The club hired Applied Golf, a course management company, more than a year ago to analyze the club and try new practices.

"They have been a terrific partner," Kiernan said. "We have one (Applied) employee here full time."

The country club is not for sale and there are no plans to put the valuable real estate on the market, Kiernan said emphatically. It will also not go semiprivate, he said.

The club, which was called Lakewood Country Club until 2000, has a long history. Luminaries including Ben Hogan, Arnold Palmer and Sam Snead teed off there when the course was on the PGA tour from 1930 to 1964.

Seminole Lakes Country Club also touts the fact that Palmer has graced its greens. But the club made a shift from tradition in 2009 when it became semiprivate and opened itself up for public play.

"We had to cover the loss of memberships. We've done that and then some," said general manager Norm Haglund. Though membership is half of what it was at its peak in 2006, it has been stable for a couple of years. The majority of the play now is public, but because of that, some of the 400 members have seen a dues reduction. They still get perks like advance tee times, charge accounts, and use of the restaurant and other amenities.

Across town at the Vinoy, its private club has about 1,000 memberships, 400 for golf. It benefits from a symbiotic relationship with the Renaissance Vinoy Resort. The private members boost sales, and the club can rely on hotel income to keep up the facility.

"We definitely had a dip in membership in '08 and '09. But our numbers today are very similar to what they were before we went into the (economic) downturn," said Russ Bond, Vinoy general manager. "Our number of resignations has really, really slowed down. We've made up and are very close to where we were four or five years ago."

Though it hasn't discounted rates, the recession made the Vinoy Club more creative in attracting members. It offers incentives sometimes to existing members who recruit new members by giving them $500 or more in credit at the resort. Initiation fees can now be spread over two years.

Golf memberships for the 18-hole course on Snell Isle took the biggest hit during the recession. "We could use a few more golf members," Bond said. "But I think the economy will start taking care of that later in the year."

Pasadena Yacht and Country Club has been running promotions off and on during the economic crunch. In some cases, initiation fees have dropped from $6,000 to $3,000. Members who sponsor a new golf member get a 20 percent reduction on monthly dues for a year. That's a savings of about $100 a month.

"Our yachting side is up. The golf side is still down," said the club's general manager, Joe Meyer. "Our club has always been open to the public on Mondays, and that has gone through the roof." Yet he said there are no considerations to make the club semiprivate.

"I feel like we're through the hard part at this point," Meyer added. "The biggest problem is the competition around here. A lot of people are just giving it away. At the end of the day people are looking for deals all the time."

Katherine Snow Smith can be reached at kssmith@tampabay.com or (727) 893-8785.

Private country clubs hope they're out of the rough 06/09/12 [Last modified: Saturday, June 9, 2012 4:31am]
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