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Struggling country clubs lower rates to fight for survival

| Sunday, Aug. 3, 2003

Joining the jet set isn't as expensive as it used to be.

Country club memberships are available at discount rates at some of the luxurious golf courses in Western Pennsylvania.

Clubs from Ambridge to Robinson are slashing their initiation fees -- sometimes eliminating them completely -- and offering everything from free range balls to waiving monthly minimums in efforts to counter the sluggish economy and new upscale public golf courses.

"Everyone is feeling it," said Ron Morra of Beaver Lakes Country Club in Hopewell Township. "It's a slow struggle."

Whether it's the country club set or weekend hackers, golfers are playing fewer rounds these days. The number of total rounds played dropped 3 percent nationally from 2001 to 2002, according to the National Golf Foundation. They dipped 5.1 percent in the Northeast Region.

The conditions claimed one casualty last spring. The 104-year-old Beaver Valley Country Club in Patterson Township, Beaver County, filed for Chapter 11 bankruptcy in May 2002 after membership had fallen 50 percent to 120 full-time members. The third-oldest course in the Pittsburgh area has since reopened under new owners as the public Beaver Valley Golf Club.

Other private clubs are taking aggressive steps to avoid the same fate:

= Chartiers Country Club in Robinson Township and Edgewood Country Club in Churchill have sliced their initiation fees, while Ambridge Country Club has dropped initiation fees entirely.

= Plush layouts such as Treesdale Golf and Country Club in Adams Township, Shannopin Country Club in Ben Avon Heights and South Hills Country Club in Whitehall have offered special deals to lure prospective members.

= Willowbrook Country Club in Allegheny Township, Westmoreland County, is waiving its $1,500 initiation fee through September. They also have offered free range balls for a month and eliminated monthly food and beverage minimums.

"Like most clubs, we've tried everything," Willowbrook president Len Hoch said. "But there are a limited number of things that you can do to attract people."

The cost to join the country club of your dreams -- with the tennis courts, swimming pools, Sunday brunch, social events and, of course, golf with no greens fees -- has never been lower.

Sam Haapala, the general manager at tony Sewickley Heights Golf Club, said the dynamics of country clubs are changing.

"The day of the small, elitist club with the members bearing all of the cost is a dying dinosaur," Haapala said. "The state of the economy, the changes in the tax laws (dues are no longer deductible), plus the fact that the Pittsburgh economy is not the most robust in the country, they are all factors."

In response, Sewickley Heights lowered its initiation fee $5,000 -- from $17,500 to $12,500 -- during a spring-time marketing campaign. Haapala said the club added 31 active members during the drive. The current initiation fee is $15,000.

"We are very pleased," Haapala said, "but we are not done."

Treesdale is inventing ways to gain business. The club this week created a new type of membership, offering a non-refundable, non-transferrable initiation fee of $16,000. That is a savings of 30.4 percent over its typical $23,000 fee.

Chartiers Country Club trimmed its permanent member initiation rate 33 percent to $10,000. The sale worked. The club added 10 members in the past year to a total of 741.

South Hills Country Club is giving potential members a lower down payment and longer to pay their initiation fee.

"I think, like any club, we're looking to attract members," South Hills general manager Gary Brueggman said. "You try to do what you can."

Country club managers realize their numbers are linked to the economy. While the stock market has risen this year -- the Dow Jones is up about 11 percent and the Nasdaq has gained about 26 percent -- they remain down from their highs in 2000.

Corporate and entertainment dollars are scarce, and country club memberships are expendable when college tuition and retirement savings are at risk.

"This is discretionary spending at its best," said Erin Shannon, the director of membership and marketing at Treesdale. "This is the first thing to get axed."

"If you have to drop something, you drop your luxury items," said Linda Luff of Edgewood Country Club, which lowered initiation fees 25 percent to $9,000.

The weather isn't helping. With 15.93 inches of rain in the past three months, this is the fifth-dampest May, June and July in Pittsburgh in 115 years.

"I think it's the whole problem with golf this year," said Tim Waxenfelter, the president of Ambridge Country Club, which has dropped its $750 initiation fee. "There are definitely a lot of people who used to golf who aren't golfing. They are spending time with their family. It happened right after (the Sept. 11 attacks)."

Not all clubs are offering discount sales. Oakmont, St. Clair and Nevillewood, for instance, haven't lowered their mid-five figure initiation fees. They are the rare recession-proof clubs.

St. Clair general manager Barry Garrett said the club membership has hovered around 900. Oakmont, ranked the nation's fourth-best golf course by Golf Digest, has maintained its current number of 700 members. Oakmont is hosting the U.S. Amateur later this month.

"We are very fortunate," Oakmont membership administrator Judy Folk said. "Things are quite busy."

Jean Sitar, the director of sales and membership at Youghiogheny Country Club in Elizabeth Township, said it all breaks down to time and money. There are fewer people who can split work for an afternoon of 18 holes and happy-hour martinis.

"People have less time to golf, and we don't have the amount of executive jobs that afford you that time," she said.

Country club sales

Here are some of the deals available at Western Pennsylvania country clubs:

Ambridge - No initiation fee

Chartiers - $5,000 off initiation fee

Edgewood - $3,000 off initiation fee

Green Oaks - $2,000 off preferred member fee

Sewickley Heights - $2,500 off initiation fee

Shannopin - $3,000 off initiation fee

South Hills - Reduced initiation down payment

Willowbrook - No initiation fee

Youghiogheny - $1,500 off initiation fee

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