BRATTLEBORO -- In many ways the Brattleboro Country Club has been teeing off into a strong head wind from its start.
The club celebrated its 100-year anniversary on July 1, 2014, and over that time, tough Vermont winters, waning interest in golf, an ambitious expansion plan and expensive maintenance costs have all forced the club to work its way out of more than one financial sand trap.
For a century the Brattleboro Country Club has been able to keep the golf course on Upper Dummerston Road open under a member-owned structure but that came to an end Thursday night when the membership authorized the banks holding the club's mortgage to sell the property to a private investor.
The name of the potential buyer and terms of the deal have not been released.
The Brattleboro Country Club is a member-owned organization. The club currently has about 180 members.
The vote Thursday allowed the potential buyer to meet with the banks and work out a deal for the property, which includes the 18-hole, 6,073-yard par 71 course, and clubhouse.
The club's financial picture has been deteriorating for a number of years, though a series of experimental tiered memberships and expensive share increases allowed the club to give it a go for one more season.
Board President Jason Kelley said the members met for abut 90 minutes Thursday night. Over the past few years, as the number of members dropped and the club's debt continued to mount, Kelley said it was only a matter of time before a vote was taken to approve a sale.
"This did not come as a shock to anyone," Kelley said. "There has been clear communication between the board and shareholders for a year, or longer, and everyone knew this could very well happen. It was inevitable."
Expansion in 2000
Kelley said the country club has been facing a number of challenges over the past few years. Golf courses around the country are closing, and, according to Bloomberg Businessweek, the number of golfers in the United States has dropped by about 24 percent, with 1.1 million fewer players, since 2002.
The weak economy makes it hard for some golfers to justify the expensive green fees and rising gas prices can make it very expensive to put fuel into the lawn mowers every week. But with all of the external trends leading to the club's pending sale, Kelley said the overriding factor was largely its own doing.
In 1997 the club membership voted to purchase the property along Upper Dummerston Road from its former owner, the Brattleboro Retreat, and to expand the course from nine holes to 18. The membership purchased the Upper Dummerston Road property from the Retreat with the intent to expand the course from nine to 18 holes. The $1.8-million budget included a new parking lot, a practice range, two new ponds, as well as septic system improvements and an improved access road.
The land sale and expansion was contingent on the country club selling shares in the club. The share price rose from $2,500 to $3,500, and eventually $5,000 per share, and while the club was successful in raising enough money to get the banks to approve the deal, the project ran into trouble almost from the start.
Local historian Robert Anderson, who published a history of the Brattleboro Country Club in 2005, writes that the club faced financial hurdles throughout its history. The economy in the 1930s was tough and a hurricane in September 1938 did significant damage to the course. In the mid-1970s the clubhouse was closed for part of the year and the full time pro which the club had employed had his hours reduced. In 1979, for the first time, the club introduced different levels of membership to attract interest.
The Brattleboro Retreat itself was facing financial challenges thought the 1980s and in 1991 the Brattleboro Country Club was asked to pay an annual rent on the property. In 1994, Anderson writes, the annual rent grew to $40,000 and the club board began thinking about purchasing the property. The country club membership approved the purchase in 1995, and two years later the Retreat sold the property to the Brattleboro Country Club for $950,000.
Once the expansion was underway the Act 250 process was expensive and time consuming, Before the first ball was teed up four wells had to be drilled before a sustainable water source was found, a prehistoric campsite was uncovered, forcing delays and more costs and additional permits were needed to blast newly discovered ledge.
Construction began in the spring of 1998.
The course received glowing reviews when it opened in 2000, but the project was about $1 million over budget.
"Most people know that the club has a mortgage left over from the expansion that happened about 15 years ago," Kelley said. "But nobody is questioning the decisions that were made back then. At this point the truth is hardly relevant."
The 19th hole?
Kelley said that while the new owner will make his or her own decisions about the future of the course, the membership hopes it will remain open to the community. At this point, he said, the banks and the potential buyer will be left to work out the details.
For years the Brattleboro Country Club has had an arrangement with the Brattleboro Outing Club that allowed the outing club to groom cross-county ski trails on the property. And while the country club was a member-run organization, the course was open to the public for a fee.
The future of both those arrangements is now unclear.
"All of the members are interested in seeing the course and club continue in some fashion, similar to what it is," he said. "We want it accessible to the public and to the local community. The members believe that is what they heard and that is why they approved the proposal."
Former board president Richard Virkstis is also hopeful about the future. Virkstis was board president in 2003, just after the new course opened. He said the community came through when membership fees were raised at first, but it got harder and harder to sustain that as the debt grew. As membership declined and costs grew it fell on a smaller and smaller group of dedicated members to keep the books balanced, and in the end the club ran out of time.
"It was a huge debt for a small club to take on for the expansion," Virkstis said. "It just became a huge nut for us to carry each year."
He said the country club also suffers from what he said is a misconception about membership. The land there and clubhouse is open to the community and Virkstis said the club needs to do better job of getting younger people interested in the game.
It was exceptionally hard approving the sale during the club's centennial celebration, Virkstis said.
The brand new nine-hole Brattleboro Country Club Golf Course opened July 1, 1914 and this was supposed to be a year to celebrate.
"This was supposed to be something to be upbeat about, but it turned out to be just the opposite," he said. "But maybe there's a silver lining. Someone is waiting in the wings who is interested in carrying on. The writing was on the wall. It was time to foreclose or find a buyer. When one door closes, another opens."
Howard Weiss-Tisman can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or 802-254-2311, ext. 279. Follow him on Twitter @HowardReformer.