Members of area’s oldest golf club buy it to save it

The new owners of the Tri-City Country Club are working to shed the 79-year-old private club’s longtime reputation as a members-only golf course by making the greens public and overhauling the private restaurant into a high-end steakhouse and sports lounge.

Members of the Kennewick country club voted unanimously Oct. 3 to turn over the day-to-day operations of running the club and par-65 golf course to a group of 21 people.

The 128-0 vote in favor of transferring ownership to the newly formed Save the Club LLC, made up of current members, prevented it from going to bankruptcy court and then possibly having strangers snap it up.

Plans are for the steakhouse, called The Edge, to open Feb. 1 and be open Thursday through Saturday, and the sports lounge open seven days a week.

The new owners will rebrand the facility as Zintel Creek Golf Club, named for the meandering creek flowing from Zintel Canyon that sustains the old growth trees providing ample shade for golfers.

The Tri-City Country Club is the oldest golf course in the area and the unanimous vote didn’t come without some heartbreak.

“Some of the comments we received from longtime members was that this was the end of an era because the club originated in 1938, and now it’s gone as they wish to remember it,” said Randy Stemp, president of Save the Club, who works as an engineering projects manager at Lampson International LLC. “We are preferring to say that it is the start of a new era with time-honored traditions.”

It helps that Stemp and the other 19 members of Save the Club are members of the country club.

“The goal truly is to save the club that’s been there since 1938,” Stemp said. “We like the fact that it doesn’t take you five hours to play. We want to maintain it.”

Save the Club is made up of area business people, including current country club pro Clint Ables, Bill Lampson, Herb Coulter, Brad Bell, Brandon Mayfield, Craig Mayfield, Levi Bland, Laurie Winchel, Jesse Kadinger, Jason Lynch, Jim London, Jean Ruane, Bob Hamilton, Angela Johnson, Mike Evanson, Vera Berry, Marv Jones, Mitch Murphy, Jim Jacobsen and Bryan Pepin-Donat.

The country club has been struggling financially for years, with serious cash flow issues beginning in the summer of 2016, Stemp said.

Members considered five options to fix the finances in August 2016 and voted to levy a $1,100  assessment on all members.

“More than 50 percent agreed to this,” Stemp said. “The country club went through its part of the bargain, went through a remodel of the clubhouse. But when the assessment came due in January, about one-third of the membership quit.”

At the time, membership numbered about 300. After the mass exodus, it dropped to 192, and there was an even bigger cash-flow problem.

“Now that the club had already spent that money on the remodel, we lost one-third of the assessment money and one-third of the membership dues,” Stemp said. “Throw in one of the snowiest winters on record, where the golf course was closed 12 weeks, and there is a problem.”

The country club’s board tried to secure a loan to straighten things out, but most banks don’t want to own a golf course, Stemp said.

“The board went to eight different banks, but no one was lending money,” he said. “In July, the board asked a group of us to give the club a $250,000 loan that most banks would normally loan.”

The group of 12 needed to protect themselves if the club fell behind in operating funds.

“The board started doing the math, and realized they were just kicking the can down the road nine to 12 months,” Stemp said.

“The board asked us, ‘What if you took ownership now?’”

So in August, the group started Save the Club.

“We decided you had to have been a member in good standing in August to be part of the group,” Stemp said. “You had to be willing to put up your share of the startup capital.”

Members had to have the ability to help with loans of up to $1 million and pay their fair share if needed.

“When this all started, there was 12 of us. Then it grew to 14,” Stemp said. “Then we shut off candidacy when we went to an LLC on Sept. 25. On Sept. 25, we decided we were at 18, and we would cap our LLC at 21. Right now we are at 21.”

The group will invest about $500,000 in the club for starters.

“But we’ve got to pay some of the bills the club owes,” said Stemp, who admits the new owners will probably go through $300,000 pretty fast.

But the group has ideas to regain the club’s footing.

It has offered profit-sharing for long-standing members.

“The club is registered as a nonprofit,” Stemp said. “In the articles of corporation, all the profits are to go to charity. People were worried we were going to take this and turn around and sell it to the highest bidder. To prevent that, we offered profit-sharing. If we took this over, when or if we sold the club, the portion of the profits would be given to the shareholders — many who have been members for many years.”

If the group sells the club in the first two years, the members would get 80 percent of the profits. But if the group still owns the course after five years, the profit-sharing program goes away.

“Right now, we’re continuing with the membership until the end of the year,” Stemp said. “But come Jan. 1, you’ll be signing a new annual membership.”

Stemp said the club has 150 golfing members.

“We need 350 to break even,” he said. “So the search is on for new members.”

To do that, the group plans to make the club fully public.

The golf course has always been open to the public, but “I don’t know if the public knew we were open to the public,” Stemp said.

He said the country cub is cutting golf rates 25 percent.

“That brings us in line below most courses in the Tri-Cities,” he said.

Hopefully, Stemp said, the reduced rates will help bring in new members – including young people.

“It costs a lot of money to keep your kids involved in youth sports,” he said. “You get to a point of either supporting your children, or playing golf. I know because I took a break from golf when my kids were in youth sports.”

Stemp said the country club was viable until about five years ago when the economic downturn hit.

But it had other problems too.

“If you ask anybody about the country club, they’ll say it’s perceived as an exclusive club that was unwelcoming environment to the general public,” he said. “We need to break that mentality to bring ideas to attract younger people. We didn’t want to change because we had very aging group of members. We weren’t able to attract new members. We were somewhat cost prohibitive to other courses.

“Little by little, we lost pieces, lost members, lost revenue,” he said. “We started cutting costs. The facility has aged. A lot of TLC needs to happen.”

Changes will made to the golf course.

“They’ve let the rough grow a bit,” Stemp said. “We’re in the process of speeding up the greens. It’s going to play tougher than its slope. We’re going to do some renovation with sand traps. The truth is, we’re not going to get some big Northwest PGA tournaments here, but as a juniors course it plays really well.”

Another renovation to the clubhouse will take place, transforming the upstairs into a sports bar and steakhouse.

“We hope to roll that out Feb. 1. We’ll be member-guest until then,” he said. “Members will also get discounts in the new restaurant.”

The group must wait 90 days for the new liquor license.

“Like every other public golf course, you get golf and some of them have a good snack bar,” Stemp said. “Now here, you’ll get good golf, a really good restaurant, one of the best views from the restaurant, a members-only area on the lower level, with a fitness center, and we’ll push the swimming pool.”

The ownership transfer happens Oct. 31 or Nov. 1.

“We’ll start running the day-to-day operations then,” said Stemp, who was surprised by the unanimous vote on Oct. 3.

“Only two-thirds of the majority were needed,” Stemp said. “There was a vocal group in the minority that were somehow concerned we were going to pillage the assets. We tried to answer those concerns.”

Now, it’s about getting more people to play golf.

“We want to give the public a chance to see what we’re about,” Stemp said. “Hopefully they like what they see. We’re pretty excited, but it’s a bit overwhelming. The overall membership saw what we were trying to do.”

To Stemp and the rest of Save the Club, it’s about what they love.

“I love to go out there and play golf,” Stemp said.

Country club’s new annual membership rates for 2018

  • Family rate, $2,700
  • Senior family (over 65), $2,600
  • Single, $2,100
  • Senior single (over 65), $2,000
  • Junior, $750
  • Corporate, $5,000
  • Social, $750
  • Non-resident (outside Benton County), $2,124

Monthly payments are available with 25 percent down and a 12-month contract.

Besides unlimited golf, membership includes seasonal pool, 20 reciprocal golf courses in the Pacific Northwest, access to fitness center, and food and beverage discounts at the golf course and clubhouse.

For more information, call the clubhouse 509-783-6014.

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