Faltering Country Clubs Inviting Public Inside

Members-only country clubs, like Uniontown Country Club in Pennsylvania, are opening their doors to the public as the recession threatens their exclusive business.
By Eli Saslow
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, May 21, 2009

UNIONTOWN, Pa. -- Their standing dinner reservation at the country club is for 6:30 p.m., because at least that much never changes. Every Wednesday night, Charles and Mimi Cluss dress in pleated slacks and suit jackets and drive to the manicured playground where Uniontown's elite have gathered for 101 years. It is like a "second home," Charles says of the place where he finalized deals for his lumber company and hosted weddings for two daughters. Except on this night in mid-May, he no longer knows what to expect.

"I wonder if it will be loud and rowdy," Charles says.

"I wonder if they will still have the crab legs," Mimi says.

Last month, Uniontown Country Club opened its dining room to the public for the first time -- a change that has blurred the social hierarchy in this mountain town south of Pittsburgh. The economic crisis and shifting demographics have left Uniontown, population 13,000, without enough wealthy residents to sustain a private club, so now UCC caters to the everymen it was created to exclude. Instead of handpicking its members from a waiting list, UCC advertises in the local paper, has relaxed its dress code and features a menu designed for what the new chef calls "budget-conscious eating." Out: the filet mignon for $30. In: super nachos for $7.95.

"We've gone from chichi to Chi-Chi's," one member says.

The same shift is affecting country clubs everywhere, including in the Washington region, where some have cut initiation fees, others have eliminated them and a private Ashburn club opened to the public just last week. The National Golf Foundation has identified more than 500 clubs at serious risk of closing, and a recent survey of club managers showed that twice as many members resigned during the past 12 months than during a typical year.

In western Pennsylvania alone, six clubs have staved off bankruptcy recently by opening at least partially to the public. Most of them share a plight similar to that in Uniontown, where a declining population and the recession have combined to make recruiting new members nearly impossible.

"Not long ago, people were dying to get in here and enjoy the luxuries in life," said David Hughes, a lifelong member and the president of the UCC board of directors. "You could walk up to the bar and have your Manhattan handed to you the way you wanted it made. It was a who's who of Uniontown, and now we're trying to pull anybody in. The whole culture has changed overnight."

Consistency is what has drawn the Clusses to the club every Wednesday for the past 50 years, and they hold fast to their routines. They sip white wine in their home's sunroom before dinner and then drive two miles uptown to UCC. They enter through double doors into a sprawling front room adorned with a brick fireplace, a dusty grand piano and three bouquets of fake flowers. Creaky hardwood floors announce their arrival, and two staff members walk out to greet them.

"Hello, Mr. Cluss."

"Hello, Mrs. Cluss."

Every corner of the UCC building is filled with Cluss family memories, because the couple have come here at least once each week since Charles took over his father's lumber company and bought a membership in 1953. Outside is the golf course where Charles spent his weekends and the pool where Mimi relaxed under a pink umbrella, the benefits of exclusivity for which the Clusses paid more than $2,500 a year. Downstairs is the members' room where Charles played cards and stashed his winnings in a locker bearing his nameplate.

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