- Associated Press - Tuesday, February 21, 2017

ST. JOHNSBURY, Vt. (AP) - St. Johnsbury Country Club is expected to swing into bankruptcy and closure for 2017 if its shareholders in March reject a standing $850,000 purchase offer.

“If a majority of the shareholders does not approve the sale of the course, the board has no choice but to either enter into a voluntary foreclosure with the bank holding the main mortgage on the club, or to file for Chapter 7 bankruptcy, i.e., liquidation of assets,” states a recent letter to shareholders from the St. Johnsbury Country Club Board of Directors. “It is unlikely that the course will open in the spring.”

Shareholders on March 1 in St. Johnsbury will vote the purchase offer up or down. The 6 p.m. meeting is at the Father Lively Center on Summer Street.

If the sale is affirmed the club is expected to open this spring, however, the board of directors may still file for bankruptcy.

“This buyer is ready to proceed and intends to open the course in the spring,” according to the letter. “The sale price will pay the secured debt of the club, most of which is owed to Union Bank, and a small outstanding loan to Passumpsic Bank. It will also pay the costs of the transaction, including real estate commissions and attorney fees. The balance remaining will be paid over to unsecured creditors, which include all unsecured loans, trade creditors, and debenture holders. The likelihood of significant payout to any of the unsecured creditors is quite low. It is likely that after the sale is completed, the club may file bankruptcy.”

The board of directors last year faced with financial problems contacted a bankruptcy attorney and marketed the property with Connecticut-based Essex Golf Group. The firm quickly landed interest from Fresh Water Industries doing business as Firinn Golf Group, which is based in Palm Coast, Florida, but has a Fort Mill, South Carolina, mailing address.

“We have spent the last months in discussions with them and we have signed a purchase-and-sale agreement,” according to the club’s letter to shareholders.

Ted Dinkel, the country club’s vice president, declined to elaborate beyond the letter.

“Right at this point I would like to not say anything,” he said. “We are not sure the other side has signed the contract yet. I really don’t want to say more than what the letter says at this point.”

Dinkel said the club’s closure for 2017 is all but imminent if the sale fails. He sees no other route to operation than new ownership.

Shareholders are likely to support the sale judging by input from three of them this week.

“The main thing is we’ll still have that fine course to walk on,” said Jim Kennedy, a longtime St. Johnsbury business owner. “The physical stature of the course, its condition, is equal to anything in the state of Vermont. Everybody was very hopeful that something would be resolved and the club would stay open.”

Kennedy is a 58-year member of the club. He joined when he was 12-years old.

Burke resident Tom Manges, a country club shareholder and a former board member, is thankful for the purchase offer. He has just one request of new ownership if the deal is sealed.

“I’d like to see the club stay in as great a shape as it has been for the past 25 years,” Manges said. “I hope that doesn’t change.”

St. Johnsbury resident Rod Sayles is another shareholder and a longtime club member. The purchase offer is a blessing, he said.

“I’m absolutely, positively enthusiastic for it,” Sayles said. “You’ve got to have a captain steering the ship. I don’t know these owners, but that’s what we need. I think this is what everybody who loves the club wants. We just don’t want to see it go to pasture. It’s a gem of the Northeast Kingdom. It really is. It has personality.”

The country club opened in 1923 with nine holes designed by renowned golf architect Willie Parks Jr. The back nine was added in 1992.

Firinn Golf Group, the prospective purchaser, issued a lengthy statement loosely detailing its intent at St. Johnsbury Country Club if sale is approved.

“We are prepared to invest in the clubhouse and make improvements to the facility that will create a more inviting environment for members and guests,” it states. “Our focus will be to create a casually upscale clubhouse that embraces the charm of Vermont, the history of the club, and modern amenities that are attractive to young and old alike. An inviting bar and dining area is essential. How we prioritize, and the direction of our investment, will be impacted greatly by member and guest feedback.Some of what we do will be a direct reflection of member feedback, and some changes will be made because in our experience as golf course operators they are just solid common sense changes that need to be made to support a fluid and efficient golf operation.”

The company’s priority for St. Johnsbury Country Club is economic sustainability and top-notch maintenance, Firinn states. The company furthermore aims to reverse the club’s declining membership roll.

The club currently includes about 200 members, down from 500 in the 19990s. The decline created the club’s present financial predicament.

“We know that concern about the stability and future of the club has had an impact on member renewals and the club’s reputation in the area,” according to Firinn. “We are committed to maintaining the quality of our core product - the golf course. Besides this commitment to maintenance, we will be looking for ways to enhance the natural beauty and aesthetics of the course while maintaining its playability.”

Despite plans for change, Firinn aims to maintain much of the same.

“Every club has its own personality, nuances and needs,” writes Firinn. “It will take time to get to know the club and the Vermont golf scene. Local and regional marketing is important. The history of St. Johnsbury is rich, both in golf and the community. This is not something that you create overnight. That history and tradition is part of the club, and needs to remain an integral part of its identity moving forward.”

Firinn Golf Group presently operates Pine Lakes Golf Club in Palm Coast, Florida. It assumed ownership of the facility 2-years ago.

The 160-acre Pine Lakes Golf Club features 18 holes designed by Arnold Palmer, according to its website. The facility boasts a pool complex and an 18,000-square-foot clubhouse with a restaurant, pro shop, locker facilities, conference room, plus banquet and catering facilities.

The course is about 30 minutes north of Daytona, Florida.

“Over the last 2 years we have improved the condition of the golf course exponentially and members and guests are enjoying a level of conditioning that they haven’t seen in 10 years or more,” according to Firinn. “We have given the clubhouse a makeover: paint, redone parking lot, new landscaped areas and a pro shop that has inventory. With a complete overhaul of the food and beverage operation, and addition of a quality chef and culinary staff, we have created a restaurant that members and guests enjoy supporting. Lastly, we continue to create a stream of golf and social events to encourage and engage our members and guests. These include pasta nights, nine and dine, member match play, member clinics, wine tasting, and theme and holiday dining events like trivia.”

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Information from: The Caledonian-Record, https://www.caledonianrecord.com

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