Hermitage Club Membership refund prompts complaint

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DEERFIELD VALLEY — A local resident has submitted a consumer complaint to the Vermont Attorney General's Office regarding a refund for his membership to the Hermitage Club.

"I hope the Attorney General's Office can somehow help the Hermitage see the correct thing is to pay their obligation they have to us," said Bill Stewart, of Wilmington. "Hopefully by going to an elected official, someone in that capacity, they can help mediate between ourselves and the club. At the end of the day, there's an agreement that's in place and they're not adhering to it."

The Hermitage has inns, restaurants and a golf course in the Deerfield Valley. It also owns and operates a private ski resort on Haystack Mountain.

Stewart cancelled his family's membership on Sept. 29, 2016 after being a member since November 2011. Looking to receive his initiation fee of $20,000 back, he wrote to the Attorney General's Office on Aug. 11.

Rules around refunds for cancellations were changed in March, a day after Stewart said he reached out to Hermitage President and Founder Jim Barnes about unanswered emails sent out last summer about the refund. Stewart was put on a waiting list and given an update on policy changes.

"As you are well aware, the Club experienced a difficult season last year, and it has taken a tremendous amount of effort by our team and a substantial amount of my personal resources to recover from the impact of the poor weather," Barnes wrote on March 3, citing also delays in the state permitting process. "With that said, the Club is still recovering from this slowdown in cash flow and is delaying the repayment of any resigned memberships including secondary memberships."

Under a section of the Hermitage's policy on membership rights, a revision was made to allow the company to "forgo resignations until March 1, 2018." Previously, Stewart said he was told three memberships would need to be sold before one refund is made.

"We will manage this closely and will adjust if cash flows improve back to forecast," Barnes wrote, putting Stewart at number 11 on a payment schedule based on the order of membership cancellation notices. "The club has further decided to provide resigned members access to the club without dues for one year from this date as a gesture of our appreciation."

Barnes noted that an investment banking firm was hired to help conduct a review of the company's "capital structure." The group is also expected to recommend fundraising ideas to "inject additional capital into the Club."

Regarding Stewart's complaint, Barnes responded to a consumer advisor from the Attorney General's Office Consumer Assistance Program.

"We take this notice very seriously," Barnes wrote on Aug. 17. "Please note we are a private club and our membership rules and regulations can change at any time and per the direction of our management and our board of directors. At the present time, our club has decided that no resignations from members will be purchased back at this time and have notified members that there is a moratorium on this until March of 2018."

Barnes told the consumer advisor that Stewart threatened the Hermitage by saying he would take the story to the press and has written emails to other members.

"We have been overly fair with all of our members on the resigned list and have even allowed them continued use of the club without dues, which is extraordinary for a private club," he wrote, inviting the consumer advisor to call his office "to put this matter to rest."

Stewart said he paid $4,500 in annual dues after paying the initiation fee. New club memberships now cost $85,000 and annual dues run $9,500, according to hermitageclub.com.

Stewart and his wife had been living in Connecticut and had a home in Wilmington before moving up to Vermont full-time shortly after Tropical Storm Irene. Stewart believes he and his wife were among the first families to sign up for a membership.

"We thought it was a good way to hopefully invest in the community," he told the Reformer. "We thought it would create jobs and tourist traffic."

Stewart said he does not have any ill will towards the Hermitage. He said he was not using the club's amenities so he no longer wanted the membership. And when it comes to the refund, he is still hopeful.

"I'm always optimistic about the human spirit," he said. "I'm hoping they'll do the right thing, which is to adhere by the terms of the agreement between ourselves and the club. Whether that comes to fruition, I don't know."

Reach staff writer Chris Mays at 802-254-2311, ext. 273, or @CMaysBR.

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