Hoping to draw new members, Vashon’s golf club charts a new course

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For years, the Vashon Island Golf & Country Club has been caught in a downward spiral. As members quit — some because of old age, others due to the recession — the board would raise the club’s fees, only to trigger the departure of still more members.

Indeed, the spiral has gone on for so many years that the club has seen its membership fall from a peak of 400 in 2003 to 165, its current level.

Now, after a meeting earlier this month and a near-unanimous vote by its members, the 79-year-old club is ushering in a series of far-reaching changes that members hope will bring more people and more revenue into the once-thriving organization.

Starting in a month or so, the restaurant — perched above the nine-hole course with a view of Quartermaster Harbor — will be open to the general public, a first since it was built in 1965.

The group has dropped its monthly dues for new members to those it offered nearly a decade ago, and the one-time $750 initiation fee has been waived for the next two months.

A new membership category has been created — a non-proprietary membership where one receives all the benefits of membership but doesn’t pay $750 for an ownership stake in the club and thus does not have voting privileges. Other more affordable categories have also been created for younger families and individuals.

In fact, the club is even changing its name. It will now be the Vashon Golf & Swim Club. “We really don’t see ourselves as a country club,” said Steve Gering, the board’s secretary.

Bob Hawkins, the club’s president, says he believes the changes will make the club far more relevant to Vashon and its changing demographics — transitioning it from a private club with a formal dining room into what he called a semi-private organization that’s more family-friendly and community-oriented.

“I think it’s something that’s long overdue, frankly,” he added.

Some of the changes will be stylistic. The dining room, for instance, will no longer have white linen tablecloths and napkins, except for on an occasional special event. And in an effort to strengthen the club’s connection to the wider community, it will likely host artists during Vashon’s popular First Friday Gallery Cruise and purchase ingredients for its meals from local farmers.

But most significant, Hawkins and Gering said, is the new fee structure — a far-reaching set of changes that the two board members hope will bring enough new people into the club to make it sustainable over the long run.

In an unusual twist, the club’s existing members will pay more than the new ones they hope to recruit. Existing members will continue to pay the current fees — $273 a month plus $40 a month in food dues; new members will pay $199 a month, with food fees about the same but more flexible in how they can be used. As new members join, those higher fees will drop — until eventually, board members say, existing members and new ones will pay the same fees.

Those who join as so-called social members — people who have access to the pool, the tennis courts and the dining room but can golf on a limited basis — will also be charged far less in dues. Those fees will drop from $154 a month to $99.

Nearly 80 percent of the club’s 92 voting members cast ballots at the Dec. 7 meeting, Hawkins said. Only one or two people voted against the new system.

The club’s long-range planning committee poured countless hours into devising the new system; they even visited other clubs, including one on San Juan Island, to see how they’ve come to terms with declining membership, a nationwide trend, Gering and Hawkins said.

As part of their analysis, committee members created a chart “that showed a dramatic story,” Hawkins said. When dues went above $200 a month, there was a sharp drop in membership; for social members, that big drop came when dues topped $100.

Now, they said, members are thinking about the club differently, working to devise creative ways to revive and invigorate the organization. A swim club will likely be developed, with special swim memberships “that will appeal to a broad number of people,” Gering said. Classes may be offered. A member who teaches Tai Chi may even conduct his movement course on the grounds, Hawkins said.

“We want it to be a place for everything,” he said.

The site, an undulating, 54-acre expanse on Maury Island, is beautifully situated, he added, and much is on the line as the club charts a new course.

“A lot of people out there realize this golf club is a treasure,” Hawkins said. “They realize that if this thing goes away, it won’t ever come back.”

The Vashon Golf & Swim Club is located at 24615 75th Ave. S.W. For more information, call the club at 463-9410 or visit www.vashoncountryclub.com.

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