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  • In for the Long‭ ‬Haul

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October 2017

In for the Long‭ ‬Haul

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By Kyle Darbyson

For most of his life, Jim Critzer was too busy building his construction company to play golf. Now, as the co-owner of Waynesboro Country Club, he’s ironically still too busy bringing the club back from the brink to take up the game

In its heyday, Waynesboro Country Club boasted close to 500 members. Its location in Northern Virginia was home to major industries including DuPont, and the executives at these firms were drawn to the country club lifestyle Waynesboro afforded.

However, as factories closed and jobs moved away, membership numbers dropped. Ownership resorted to increasingly desperate ploys to remain solvent, from allowing public play to shuttering the food-and-beverage service. Debts piled up and revenues declined, and suddenly the 67-year-old club found itself in foreclosure.

Jim Critzer grew up just a few blocks from the venerable country club. “I’m not a golfer, but I know this place is an icon in the [Shenandoah] Valley.” When he heard Waynesboro would be going up for auction, he reached out to his longtime friend Kenneth Bradley. “We both just felt like we needed to keep it alive.”

The pair determined their maximum bid would be an even $1 million, a bargain given the land and buildings were appraised at $3.5 million. At auction, a lawyer represented the only other serious bidders. “If they had won,” Critzer recalls, “I’m pretty sure there would be no more country club.” In the end, however, it was Critzer and Bradley who won with a bid of $891,000.

Aware that the optics of two non-golfers buying their golf club could prove worrisome to members, the new owners quickly and publicly declared their intent to keep the club operating. Tactically, a lot of the early work was focused on cosmetic upgrades. “We looked for easy wins, things that were visible when you drive by so we could show people that we’re committed to making this work,” Critzer says. Bridges were repaired, creek beds manicured, and trees pruned. “There’s been a huge improvement in just 90 days.”

One significant advantage the new ownership group brings is decades of experience in the construction industry. “If you’re going to build a house, most people pay someone to do it,” explains Critzer. “But here, we can build that house.” From concrete work to paving to even hauling away waste—the duo is drawing from a wealth of existing equipment and personnel to work on any number of projects.

They also plan on leveraging the considerable list of contacts built up over the years to secure favorable rates on supplies. “Another country club will go out and pay $20 to $25 a ton for aggregate for their cart paths, but I can get it for $10,” he boasts.

While their non-traditional background might be an advantage in some of the more ‘nuts and bolts’ aspects of running a golf course, it also means they need support in the more nuanced aspects of the business. “We definitely knew we needed help in marketing and PR,” Critzer admits.

To this end, the club hired Marti Pugh as its director of marketing and public relations. She’s been tasked with educating the public about the changes and reigniting interest in the community. Standing in her way is a lingering sense of resentment many in the area feel toward the club.

“You could say the club certainly had a reputation as being elitist,” Pugh admits. Its new owners are anything but pretentious, and they’re angling for an inclusive club everyone in the area can enjoy. “We want anyone to be able to come out and enjoy, even if it’s just dinner on the patio.”

To showcase this new approach, Pugh is organizing open houses with BBQ cookouts, golf and concerts—hardly stuffy stuff. She’s also focusing on expanding the events portion of the business (see sidebar) and leveraging her contacts in the media to cook up exposure on local TV. “We had a crew out this morning talking about some of the changes we’re making.”

So far, this approach has worked extremely well. “I bet we’ve added 70 members since we took over three months ago,” Critzer notes. That puts the club at close to 190 members, just shy of the 200 officials think they need to be profitable in the long term. To help get over the hump, the group is focusing its next batch of improvements on the pool area, parking lot and further upgrades to the clubhouse.

Critzer says he’s had the chance to play a couple rounds of golf, but finds his time on the course is better spent looking for areas to improve. “I get out here and I look at everything with a critical eye.” To longtime members, this new attention to detail has been a welcome ray of light. “When I first started coming here just before the auction there were a lot of gloomy faces,” he says. “Today, I see a lot more smiles.”

Kyle Darbyson is a Vancouver-based freelance writer.

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