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Feeling the Squeeze, Exclusive Country Clubs Get the Common Touch

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.

Some of the best nights of their 63-year-old marriage have unfolded in the restaurant -- an open dining room with white tablecloths, sweeping views of the Allegheny Mountains and portraits of deceased members hanging on the wall. They usually eat dinner alone on Wednesdays and with friends on Fridays.

"Sometimes you see somebody you know and they join you. You've got a big group before you know it," Charles says. "That's what's special about the place. It's a big group of friends."

Charles joined the board of directors when the club started to falter, and he has spent his tenure trying to figure out how to preserve country-club culture in a town where half the government workers were recently laid off, five of seven auto dealerships are shuttered and 22 percent of residents live below the poverty line. In a desperate spree over the past 20 months, the board eliminated club initiation fees, sold golf to nonmembers for $32 per round, offered social memberships starting at $600 annually, and hired a new golf pro and groundskeeper. None of it significantly boosted membership.

While the club celebrated its centennial last winter, Charles and the rest of the board reviewed finances that forecast a short future. The number of dues-paying members had dropped from a high of 450 to fewer than 180. The average age at the club was well over 60. More than two dozen part-time members from 2008 had decided not to join in 2009 because, Charles said, "a country club is the first thing to go when money gets tight."

"We are dying fast," said Hughes, the president. "We had run out of things to try. The only choice left was to open up the restaurant."

Amid some protest from what he called "the hard-core, conservative members," Hughes fired the old chef early this spring and hired Michael DiMarco, a local chef known for his many tattoos and for serving gigantic portions at budget rates. He remade the menu to his liking, adding onion rings with ranch dressing for $3.95, topping his signature salads with french fries and eliminating all steaks smaller than 16 ounces. A few dozen locals started arriving at the club for meals each week, occasionally rankling members by parking their pickup trucks in preferred spots and exiting through the lobby with to-go containers.

This is the club that the Clusses now come to for dinner. As they enter, they scan the restaurant for old friends and find only a handful. An unfamiliar couple drink Coors Light longnecks at a table near the entrance. A few strangers admire the view from the outdoor deck. The bartender offers a new two-for-one beer special while a hockey game blares on a flat-screen television -- the result of a suggestion by DiMarco to "liven the place up."

"I won't be able to hear myself think in here," Charles says.

The Clusses walk out of the public dining area and sit instead at a corner table in an empty adjacent room. Formerly used for the ladies' bridge game, the space was converted into a members-only dining area after the public arrived. The Clusses wait silently at their table for a few minutes before a waitress walks in to take their order.

She carries a pad and pencil, wears an untucked golf shirt and introduces herself as a new hire. When the dining room was still private, waitresses dressed in black pants, white shirts, ties and full black aprons. They accommodated all special requests regardless of what was listed on the daily menu. They were discouraged from writing down orders and expected to memorize each member's favorites.

Mr. King likes a single scoop of vanilla ice cream after dinner.

Dr. George wants a good cabernet during meals and a dirty Grey Goose after golf.

Mr. Blaney drinks Absolut on the rocks decorated with three onions.

And Mr. Cluss has always preferred a simple salad before his dinner, with olives sliced from the bar, finely shredded lettuce and no croutons. The new waitress returns with a salad loaded with croutons, and Charles frowns as Mimi picks them off his plate. "No croutons," he mutters as the waitress walks away. "No croutons. No croutons."

Their entrees -- baked chicken for him, crab legs for her -- taste fine, but the portions overwhelm them. Most of the chicken and a mountain of sweet potatoes remain untouched on Charles's plate when he sets his napkin on the table.

"How was it?" the waitress asks.

"Good," Charles says.

A few of their friends have left the club in protest of the changes, but Mimi and Charles vow never to resign. His legacy in Uniontown is the country club and his family's lumber business, he says, and his main priority is to leave both in good standing. He plans to introduce himself to some of the public diners, meet with the new kitchen staff and try a few new dishes, he says. But some changes he will never accept.

As Charles and Mimi stand up to leave, the waitress stops at their table.

"Are you sure I can't get the rest of this food to go for you?" she asks.

"No," Charles says. "I wouldn't want to walk out carrying one of those doggie bags."

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