By Kyle Darbyson
By selling a portion of its land to developers, Greenacres Country Club in southern New Jersey bought itself a new lease on life that's given the once-struggling facility a bright, sustainable future
What Greenacres Country Club in Lawrenceville, New Jersey, didn’t have were members and capital for much-needed improvements. What it did have, however, were acres of terrain in one of the Northeast’s hottest real estate markets.
Faced with an increasingly tenuous financial outlook, club officials made the difficult decision to sell off close to 10 percent of that land. Soon, they discovered sacrificing that small parcel actually did a lot more than unlock revenue; it also completely revitalized the club.
The story of how Greenacres got to this seemingly desperate position isn’t an uncommon one. The course flourished for much of its 75-year existence, carving a niche catering to the mid-market private club clientele in the quiet town midway between Philadelphia and New York City. Membership topped out close to 300.
Aging demographics and golf’s dwindling popularity began to eat away at the club’s membership numbers. “It was a slow slide,” says head golf professional Michael LaBrutto. The crash of 2008 dramatically accelerated that slide, leaving stakeholders scrambling for answers. “We tried open houses, ads in the local paper, mailers, but nothing had any lasting effect.”
Salvation came after a longtime member attended a presentation from renowned course designer Bobby Weed. The protégé of Pete Dye was speaking about the emerging trend of “repurposing” portions of golf courses to include residential developments, and then using raised funds to recapitalize for course renovations. The member, who himself enjoyed a long career in real estate development, quickly connected the dots and approached club officials at Green Acres. “We immediately saw the potential,” remembers LaBrutto.
Weed himself flew in to tour the facility and assess options. LaBrutto says a vision came together quickly. “The way our course is laid out really lends itself to a particular solution.”
Chris Monti is a senior design associate at Bobby Weed Golf Design. He says they worked to develop a design that maximized the return from the real estate sale while minimizing the disruption to play. “We were able to utilize the existing driving range for the majority of the land we needed, so the resulting impact to the golf holes was relatively slight.”
All told, 14 acres of land were set aside for redevelopment. The resulting new layout will see six holes completely redesigned, with tweaks and renovations on the remaining 12. LaBrutto says the changes come at the perfect time. “This course is almost 80 years old, with big trees that were getting overgrown.” Modern equipment was also rendering a lot of the course’s hazards moot. “Even average hitters can fly past a lot of our bunkering.”
Lennar Homes, one of the country’s largest real estate developers, stepped up to purchase the land in a deal worth many millions. Its plan called for 97 townhome units in a development being branded as an “active-adult community”, meaning buyers must be over 55 years old. That stipulation was vital to pass the regulatory test since town officials were concerned an influx of young families might overwhelm the local school system. Otherwise, LaBrutto says officials at every level of government were extremely receptive to the plan. “Lawrenceville accepted the proposal with open arms,” Labrutto notes. It doesn’t hurt that town coffers will see an influx of $1.4 million in new property taxes.
Once those hurdles were behind them, LaBrutto needed to sell the idea to membership. “It’s simple—they enjoy huge improvements without an assessment.” The plan presented called for $3 million to be poured into course redesign and renovations, and an additional $2 million on the clubhouse and pool area. It’s a chance to modernize the aging facility, and LaBrutto says they plan on making changes to attract younger members. They’ll focus on outside dining, improving the fitness center and locker room, and creating a kind of daycare where parents can drop off their kids for supervised activities while they play 18 holes. “We really want to create a more casual atmosphere.”
Of course, changes as significant as the ones being planned at Greenacres take time, and the prospect of losing access to their club can make members uneasy. So LaBrutto leveraged his contacts in the area to arrange plenty of options for his members during the 11 months their course will be shuttered. He arranged full reciprocal play at a club 10 miles north of Lawrenceville. He’s also arranged, and coordinated, escorted field trips to some of the area’s most prestigious clubs. “They’re going to get to play facilities they normally couldn’t play,” LaBrutto says.
Still, the club does expect to lose a few members. “Some guys only have a few prime golfing years left, and it’s a lot to ask for them to essentially forgo a full year.” Club officials expect those losses to be easily offset thanks to an agreement with Lennar that stipulates all homeowners in the new development become social members at Greenacres. Not only does this add nearly 100 people to the club’s roster, it also creates a rich pool of prospects to migrate up to full membership. “Lennar tells us to expect 20 percent to 30 percent to upgrade to full membership.”
LaBrutto suggests the refreshed Greenacres will be the premier facility in the county once it is complete. He says the influx of new faces will bring new energy. “I haven’t been this excited in a long time,” he says. “It’s a true renaissance for our club.”
Kyle Darbyson is a Vancouver-based freelance writer.