Shawnee Country Club shareholders vote to go public

January 20, 2012

The shareholders at Shawnee Country Club, including many Cape Region residents, voted Jan. 12 to convert from a private club to a fully public recreational facility. The members authorized the board of directors to negotiate for a lease of the longtime Milford landmark to the operators of The Rookery Golf Course.

Shawnee opened in 1958 as a full-service private country club with a nine-hole golf course, a clubhouse, tennis courts and a large swimming pool. As with Maple Dale Country Club, Sussex Pines Country Club and other new golf clubs on the Eastern Shore, Shawnee was among the social and recreational amenities that blossomed on the Delmarva Peninsula in the post-World War II era.

Forward-thinking Milford movers and shakers, some of whose families are still highly influential, led the way in developing a country club where cost of entry and continued membership were relatively easy on the wallet.

During the early 1980s, the club expanded its golf course, designed by the noted Mid-Atlantic course architect Ed Ault, to an 18-hole layout, using the western half of the property’s 159 acres.

At its peak in the early 1990s, Shawnee had well over 500 stockholders, each holding a single share in the nonprofit corporation.

It didn’t last.

Beginning about 10 years ago, the membership numbers started a slow drift downward, putting pressure on the club’s revenues. Even when the board would convince the shareholders to raise dues to offset the membership loss, additional members would leave and thus cut into the projected revenue gain.

Succeeding boards tried a variety of ways to stem the cash drain, only to watch as the club’s membership numbers continued to decline.

Shawnee has always been land rich, while also being careful about its debt load. However, a local bank altered the terms of a prior lending deal, forcing a major shift in cash resources to handle improvements in the clubhouse that had already been built.

In essence, Shawnee hasn’t been able to recover from a continuing cash flow crunch, especially as its membership numbers continue to diminish. And in case anyone hasn’t noticed, banks are much more reluctant to loan money to any golf courses, public or private.

Chris Adkins, the managing director for The Rookery, is a former member of Shawnee, whose father was among those involved in creating Shawnee. He also worked for several years as Shawnee’s course superintendent. Along with his ownership group at The Rookery, Adkins and Butch Holtzclaw, Rookery’s head golf professional, sought to enter into a leasing arrangement with Shawnee for at least a three-year term.

As noted in my last column, discussing the situation in Myrtle Beach, S.C., there are potential economies of scale for management of multiple clubs that just don’t exist for a single-course operation.

Adkins and Holtzclaw told Shawnee’s stockholders at the Jan. 12 meeting that there are significant benefits to both courses if they are operated under common management. For example, they propose that the members of The Rookery and Shawnee will have playing privileges at both courses, situated only 12 miles from each other on Route 1. They also intend to keep Shawnee’s swimming pool and tennis courts open and available, in much the same way that Shawnee provided in recent years.

Preliminary indications are that this joint operation, similar to those in place in Ocean City, Md., and points north, could work out well for all concerned.

The parties are in the middle of the negotiation process, with a goal of making a deal in time for a March 1 takeover of Shawnee’s facilities, all of which are to remain open. As Shawnee’s current president, I am an active participant in that process.

Here’s hoping that we can agree upon a mutually beneficial arrangement for the two organizations and preserve a historic part of the Cape Region’s golfing heritage.

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