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Plenty of room at the country club Weak economy, population drop set off scramble for members

"I would never belong to any club that would have me as a member."

-- Groucho Marx

You still, as a general rule, will have to find a current member to nominate you, win an invitation from the membership committee and pony up a considerable amount of money -- up front and every month thereafter -- to belong.

But the one thing you won't find standing between you and a key to most Buffalo-area country clubs is a waiting list.

If anything, according to the leaders of some of the area's private country and golf clubs, clubs are working hard to fill all of their slots, trimming initiation fees, urging current members to invite their friends, adding activities for non-golfing spouses and children and engaging in more energetic marketing activities.

"We're just like every other business, working with tighter staffs and watching expenses," said Chip Clover, the golf pro at Brookfield County Club in Clarence. "The days of waiting lists are long gone."

Among those more assertive organizations is the Westwood Country Club of Williamsville. Not only is the 64-year-old club with the 81-year-old clubhouse facing the same recession-driven decline in membership applications, it is also fighting off persistent rumors that it is about to close.

Not true, say club president Barry Singer and general manager Bruce Becker.

"We are still very vibrant and forging ahead," Becker said last week. But, he added, "We are always looking for potential members and we are trying to be more competitive in a very competitive marketplace."

Westwood, Becker said, is in the third year of what he described as a "very aggressive" marketing campaign that includes reduced initiation fees for different categories of membership and monthly dues that are guaranteed not to go up for two years. Westwood's assertiveness extends to posting its introductory fees online. That's information that the other clubs don't make public.

At Westwood, a new invited member age 40 or over can join for $1,500 up front, down from $2,995, and new members age 30 to 39 can, if invited to join, put up $250 instead of $995. Monthly fees are frozen at $395. Accepted members who are under 30 years of age and those who want a social (no golf) membership pay no initiation fee and $250 a month in dues.

Singer also pointed to the long-term contracts recently signed with Becker, as well as the club's golf pro and grounds superintendent, and the addition of a new golf practice facility as evidence of Westwood's permanence.

Rumors that one or another area club is about to schedule its last tee time have come and gone for at least a decade, Westwood's Singer said, as clubs compete for a valuable but finite pool of families affluent enough to afford country club dues and active enough to make use of the facilities.

"Belonging to a country club is a privilege," he said. "Individuals who look to join a country club look to see if they will get their full worth out of it."

Even when households aren't reconsidering every expense, and even in communities that aren't declining in population, Singer said clubs have to fill the slots of members who die, move away or just decide that they don't play golf enough to justify the ongoing expense of a membership.

For some clubs, full worth means getting a lot more than a quiet place to play golf on weekends or an elegant dinner now and again. In order to help members justify the expense, some clubs have relaxed their dress codes, added to-go items and children's menus to their grills and dining rooms or allowed members to schedule tee times, or even sponsor new members, online.

Evolution is nothing new for country clubs. Some have grown from indoor-only downtown cloisters to fresh-air golf clubs. Others, with varying levels of enthusiasm, have added tennis courts, swimming pools, bowling lanes and exercise facilities.

The official history of the Park Country Club of Buffalo, founded in 1903, includes an account of a 16-year argument over whether to add a swimming pool to the club's Williamsville property. Some club leaders felt it necessary to keep up with the times and attract younger members. Others feared "squealing, bikini-clad maidens racing through the grill, pursued by dripping-wet towel snapping swains."

The pool was added in 1961. To this day, swimwear is not allowed in the grill.

At Brookfield, according to golf pro Clover, the focus remains on golf, and it is a niche his members like. But convincing people to join, and to remain members, he said, means adding family-oriented activities such as "drive-in" movies shown outdoors to members and families sitting in golf carts, sleep-over camps and arts and crafts pavilions for children too young to hit the links.

"We are just trying to be more accessible," Clover said.

Tom Habermehl is president of the Crag Burn Golf Club near East Aurora. He said his golf-focused club -- no tennis courts, no pool -- remains attractive to those who like the lack of distractions. But, like other country clubs, it is also losing potential members to the increasing number of high-quality public golf courses that don't require a membership.

Park County Club general manager Brad Pollak recently returned to the Buffalo area after working for several years in Ohio. He said the more rapid decline of the economy in some Buckeye State communities had led to a similarly rapid loss of country club memberships, taking a harder toll on them than he sees in the relatively stable, no boom/no bust Western New York market.

Pollak trusts that the Buffalo area, benefiting from its proximity to Canada and the Great Lakes, will be a good market for country clubs in years to come.

"There's a tremendous upside to Buffalo," Pollak said. "I think the well-managed clubs will continue to do well."

e-mail: gpyle@buffnews.com

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