by Kemp Brinson

Country Clubs

Country clubs….

From a recent article in The Ledger about Winter Haven’s newly-reconstituted country club:

“Houseman said club administration originally overestimated how many people would be willing to pay initiation fees averaging between $10,000 and $12,000…”

I’m sorry, how much?

The remedy proposed comprises promotional “discovery” memberships that start at $2400/year (tennis) and $3300/year (golf). I presume these are limited-time offers, but the article isn’t clear.

I have a love-hate relationship with country clubs. By “love”, I mean I love it when their members hire me to represent them and make generous contributions to their local community theaters, and I love it when they hire my favorite local musicians to play gigs at the clubhouse. A thriving country club is a sign that a community is succeeding and growing, with a vibrant class of economically successful people who enjoy the finer things in life. I wish the club well, and hope that it succeeds.

Here’s the hate part. As a member of their supposed target demographic (I’m a 35 y/o lawyer), they have not even begun to pique my interest in joining.

For one thing, I, and most people my age, even those of us who are successful, don’t have that kind of disposable income. The ranks of the well-to-do are getting smaller and wealthier, and fewer young professionals are breaking in.

Even if we could afford it, there are fewer people my age that value the kind of posh exclusivity that country clubs offer. Want to be relevant to me? You need to be a club where I can buy into its mission, not just its exclusive stockholder list.

Why not start a “country” club where country means more than golf? Golf is an unnatural and resource-intensive land use. Acquire pristine conservation land. Members get camping rights and high-end and well-maintained loaner bicycles, kayaks and other gear, camping privileges, and guided excursions. But the facility would be open to the public for a small entry fee, comparable to a state or national park. Why not have a golf, tennis, soccer, and swim club who’s bread and butter is youth sports programs within the reach of those with modest means, but which offers one-on-one lessons with the pros to equity members? I still couldn’t afford it, but at least I’d be interested enough to consider it when I can. Those ideas probably aren’t economically viable, either, but at least they aren’t recycled business plans from 1981.

Here’s the crux of it. If you cater to such a tiny, aging, and shrinking segment of the community, you aren’t a community organization and should not expect community investment or interest. You are just a business offering a service that 99% of people can’t afford, and that only a small fraction of those who can even want. Exclusivity is decreasingly desirable. Those of us who lead and are up-and-coming young leaders can’t expect to wall ourselves off behind guard shacks and velvet ropes and expect to continue to succeed in post-recession America. Our clubs and institutions need to reflect that value. Country clubs, as a whole, don’t.

Take a look at the building they want to build. They tore down an architecturally interesting modern building designed in part by Gene Leedy and intend to replace it with uninspired antebellum plantation opulence. Granted, the old clubhouse may have needed replacing. But I don’t think sippin’ wine served on a silver platter on the back porch of this thing is the way my generation of young professionals is going to want to enjoy the good life, assuming we ever achieve it. We want craft beer, art studios, and a little funk around the edges of our luxury.

I hope this club succeeds. I just hope it succeeds as an integral part of this community, not an enclave intentionally removed from it. I don’t see $3300/year promotional memberships being the answer to attracting my generation.