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Fore-Gone Conclusion?

by Colleen Patrice Clark

The recent auction sale of Cherry Hill's Woodcrest Country Club to a local real estate firm raised more than a few eyebrows. For now, First Montgomery Group claims they paid nearly $4 million more than the land's appraised value in an effort to resurrect the troubled landmark golf course. Will the company stay true to its word? Some remain skeptical.

A waiting game is taking place in Cherry Hill, a “will they” or “won’t they” scenario involving the largest chunk of undeveloped land in the township: The Woodcrest Country Club. This 155-plus acres is nestled in an area already among the most highly congested in South Jersey (it’s both a shopping mecca and a top choice for some of the area’s most elite executives to call home). It’s an unspoiled parcel, a precious commodity. In the short-term, residents and officials are left with little choice but to take the new owners’ word for what it is: Sure, they’re a real estate company with a portfolio primarily of retail and apartment housing; and yes, they bid well over the appraised value of the property ($3.6 million to be exact), but their intentions are to maintain a golfing tradition some 84 years strong. But looking at the long-term, the new owners coming out of May’s bankruptcy sale for the struggling country club—the family-owned First Montgomery Group in Marlton—have avoided making a solid commitment about what’s down the road for this hot commodity. “We can guarantee that it will remain a golf course,” says company principal Mike Haydinger, a comment that has been echoed multiple times during the last few weeks, much to the relief of some nervous residents and politicians who feared a real estate company would have interest in just one thing—real estate. But he continues, and alludes to a more open-ended future. “This is a purchase for the long term,” he says. “It is an income-generating asset and is admittedly different than what we typically have done, but like real estate, it is capital intensive and requires long-term vision.” With that in mind, he adds that while it’s certain they’ll keep the 18-hole course, he “can also guarantee that, like many other golf courses, we will always look to see if there is a possibility of repositioning some holes and facilities to determine if there is a possible conforming zoning use.” That’s the closest the company has come to saying development could be in mind if needed to maintain the property’s value. Camden County and Cherry Hill officials, mainly Freeholder Jeff Nash and Mayor Chuck Cahn, have come out vehemently saying they will fight a zoning change for the property—which could allow for retail or housing development.

But, as Haydinger suggests, there could be other options that adhere to the current “institutional” zoning without asking for a variance. A hospital or medical center has been the one most mentioned in recent months, but there are actually a number of allowances under institutional zoning—from child care centers to schools, churches to theaters, even assisted living facilities. Of course, any proposal would need planning board approval, among others for the environmentally sensitive area. For the time being, though, company representatives insist the point is moot. “Literally all of our meetings are 100 percent about golf and staffing this club,” says Jamie Berman, director of marketing at First Montgomery Group—stressing that for now, the golfing greens and clubhouse offerings are top priority. “We just spent a ton of money to reopen the club to the public. As far as my job, that’s 100 percent what I’m focused on. So I’d say [the future] is golf.”

Where are they headed?
First Montgomery’s $10.1 million bid knocked Camden County and Cherry Hill’s bid of $7.2 million (an effort to preserve the land as open space) out of the water. It also narrowly edged out the next highest offer of an even $10 million made by Camden County democratic power broker George Norcross and real estate investor Ira Lubert. As far as the high bid raising eyebrows, Berman insists the Haydingers see possibility in transforming Woodcrest—a private club that spiraled into debt following an $8 million loan to construct a new clubhouse in 2002. The club filed for Chapter 11 last year. “We have a track record of making very smart real estate decisions and buying properties at the right time,” Berman adds. There’s sentimental reasoning as well, she points out, as the family—father Richard and sons Mike, Matthew and Richard—are Cherry Hill natives. “They love and enjoy this area,” Berman says. “When they saw an opportunity like this that’s special and dear to people’s heart, they grasped it.”

The course was reopened for the first time since last season on June 7, a mere 18 days after the bidding.

It was a relief for the eyes closely watching a company that didn’t even announce its intentions until after Woodcrest was purchased. But two major differences marked the opening: a name change to The Village at Woodcrest, and the transition to a semi-private course—the first time in the club’s history that it was open to the public. Memberships (which once stood as high as $7,900) for interested golfers will be made available around September. Until then, fees range from $45 to $125 depending on day and time. Berman says First Montgomery’s plans include sprucing up the pool, tennis courts and 30,000-square-foot clubhouse and beginning new programs revolving around family, golf training, health and fitness (think childcare, wellness workshops and Pilates for golfers) to attract not only golfers of all abilities but people and families of all ages. “Our short-term goal is to have more people on the course,” Berman says, adding they’re averaging 60 rounds a day, with hopes to reach around 100. “Some other things we’ve toyed with are reopening the clubhouse and having a restaurant with a more contemporary feel, like a Redstone or Dubh Linn Square.” For the long-term, she insists they’re just not there yet. “We’re still working on a sufficient plan,” Berman says. “We have visions of this place being a destination for families. That’s the long-term goal; it’s taking the club from where it is to a new place that it could be.”

The apprehension
While plans unfold, it’s almost inevitable for rumors to start—such as a recent one reported that a request for a sewer service extension was made to the township. According to Bridget Palmer, spokeswoman for the township, that’s just not true. Still, the mayor and others will continue to watch with “cautious optimism.” “There was no doubt in our mind that there would be interest from developers,” she says of the bankruptcy sale, adding Toll Brothers had once been interested in the property, as well. “What we said from the beginning was we were going to do whatever we can to see that property preserved.” That’s why almost immediately after the sale, First Montgomery reached out to borough hall to let them know they planned to preserve the course. “We have said anything that isn’t a golf course, we’re against,” Palmer says, adding residents and the local government both view the club as a landmark. “Now, we’re going to take them on their word that they’ll maintain it as a golf course. We don’t want to speculate beyond that.” However, in the event that plans progress beyond the sport, Palmer says the owners of course have the right to approach the planning board with an institutional development project. On the other hand, they also have the right to request a zoning variance if they wanted to go in the direction of housing or retail—not to say it would be approved.

“We can’t prevent them from making an application,” she says. “Either board would weigh the request on its merits and weigh fairly.” But, she adds, it’s a big piece of land at the corner of Haddonfield-Berlin and Evesham roads that can’t handle much more impact, so if a request is eventually made: “We’ll cross that bridge when we get to it.” In the meantime, they hope the owners are successful in restoring the club to the stature it held in the past. The fact that it’s now a semi-private course hopefully opens it up to the enjoyment of that many more people, she says, which only increases its chances at success. Woodcrest did indeed hold a very well-regarded stature in its heyday and was known as the premier course in South Jersey. Founded as a Jewish country club in 1929—at the time, many clubs were not allowing Jews as members—it remained a social status symbol through the decades. As Archie Struthers recalls from his time there as a caddie in the ’60s and ’70s, “Woodcrest was the most successful, richest place in the Cherry Hill area growing up.” A former pro golfer who worked at Pine Valley for a time, the designer of Twisted Dune Golf Club in Egg Harbor Township, and owner at Greate Bay Country Club in Somers Point, Struthers fondly recalls the William Flynn-designed Woodcrest and it’s well-deserved respect from the community. “I worked there from the time I was 11 on through high school,” he says. “I always had an interest in what happened there because I had so many memories from when I was younger.” He’s thrilled to see it back open and available to more people. And though he admits he hasn’t golfed there in years, that could change soon thanks to a newfound relationship he now has with First Montgomery. “When they bought it, I thought the whole story was intriguing,” says Struthers, now an Ocean City resident. “I reached out to them to ask what they were thinking of doing, and they said, ‘Why don’t you come meet with us?’” That resulted in Struthers becoming an unpaid advisor of sorts, offering his input on how to revive the course and make it work in not just a changing economy but a changing culture where golf just isn’t as popular as it used to be among younger generations. “They have a real interest in making it a working, viable country club,” he says. “I know it’s in the gestation period, but I’m sure by the end of the summer and going into next year they’ll have it running smoothly.” His confidence is due in part to their awareness of the changing approach to golf. Though Woodcrest was once very exclusive, the business has changed in the last 10 to 15 years. The Haydingers recognize that, he says, and so along with offering new programs geared toward health, fitness and community events, he believes they’ll embrace flexible times, flexible memberships, and other things that a more budget-conscious and fast-paced society desires. For those same reasons, however, Struthers—also a real estate broker—says he wouldn’t necessarily be against developing the property further if it were to eventually be an option. “If the world changes, I think you have to change with the times,” he says.

Waiting for what’s next
Woodcrest isn’t the only property in Cherry Hill that’s found itself in the spotlight lately. There’s currently a lawsuit filed by several local residents against the zoning board for granting what they believe were illegal variances that go against the township’s master plan to a local developer. If the project moves forward, 152 apartments would be constructed on nine acres at the former ProBuild Lumber site at Brace and Kresson roads, which closed its doors for the last time in October 2011. Bob Shinn, a lead plaintiff, now can’t help but watch Woodcrest closely. “Any form of development typically increases property taxes,” he says, “while most open space acquisitions, if priced appropriately, pay for themselves over time in savings from not having to provide municipal and school services to the incremental development.” He calls the whole situation “murky,” and found it confusing that Camden County would be involved in a bidding process against Norcross, their “political patron” as Shinn refers to him. Add to that Norcross being outbid by just $100,000. “It is very odd,” Shinn, a retired venture capitalist, says. “The Norcross group could have easily afforded to bid the property higher had it really wanted it.” How much does he trust the land will remain a golf course only? “Not much,” he says bluntly. “No one pays $10.1 million just for a golf course in this area.” But they did, and it’s a company that owns four retail sites and eight housing communities in the tri-state area—including one in Chester County called The Fairways. It’s adjacent to an 18-hole golf course. A portfolio like that only fuels the rumors—including one that a First Montgomery lawyer told a reporter at a meeting that they weren’t pursuing golf. But Berman doesn’t have much time for those rumors.

She’s too busy concentrating on what that unnamed lawyer said they weren’t interested in. “We’re diversifying our portfolio a bit more and breaking off from the multi-family housing industry,” Berman says in defense of the interest in Woodcrest. “We completed a privatized military community six years ago, and that was different for the company, too. “All I can say is that they’re [the Haydingers] smart business people. There’s something they see possible here. If it can be done and be done well and contribute to the community, we’re the company to do it.”

Published (and copyrighted) in South Jersey Magazine, Volume 10, Issue 4 (July, 2013).
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