The longtime Jewish country club is sold, leaving just one remaining Jewish country club out of the seven that existed in the last century.
And then there was one.
News that a deal to purchase the financially troubled Meadowlands Country Club in Blue Bell by the ownership of the nearby Blue Bell Inn — headed by developer Bruce Goodman, a former club member who’s had a longtime financial commitment to the Philadelphia Jewish community — is virtually completed, comes as a relief to concerned members fearing the worst.
And while the current plan is for Meadowlands to maintain a relationship with the Jewish Federation of Greater Philadelphia and host Federation Day as it has done for years, it’s already apparent the makeup of the club is about to undergo a change.
Goodman, Kevin Clibanoff, owner of the successful Bridget’s Steak House and KC’s Alley in Ambler and Scott Dougherty, former floor manager of the Blue Bell Inn, before joining Clibanoff in opening the Ambler restaurants, say that’s simply a necessity to survive.
“We’re excited at the possibility of having this opportunity,” said Goodman, who began exploring the opportunity in November, shortly after a proposed arrangement between the club and Whitpain Township — one that would have preserved the land as an open space in perpetuity through an easement — fell through. “But whether you’re a Jewish club or non-Jewish club doesn’t matter. Golf clubs are not what they used to be. We’re going to promote to have a mix.”
How much of that mix will remain Jewish is unknown. Clearly, though, Meadowlands’ identity as a “Jewish” country club figures to change, leaving
Green Valley Country Club in Lafayette Hill alone in that category. While Green Valley has been accepting non-Jewish members for years, it, too, has always hosted Federation Day.
As reported in the Jewish Exponent (May 28, 2015), Green Valley and Meadowlands were the last of what had once been seven local “Jewish” country clubs. Ashbourne and Rydal have closed their doors, and Philmont, White Manor and Radnor Valley have become more assimilated.
“We don’t necessarily worry or consider what other clubs are doing,” said Green Valley president Randy Needles, whose son, Randy, is a third-generation family member. “We’d prefer there be more Jewish clubs. But the country club business in 2016 is very difficult and challenging. We are much more family-oriented than the traditional country club of 25-30 years ago. We’re open to any member, Jewish or non-Jewish. One of the things we support and will continue to support is our involvement with Federation. That’s one of our strongest ties, and we’re not planning on going anywhere or changing.”
With so much change taking place at Meadowlands — including a new general manager, new golf pro, a significantly more health-conscious menu and, beginning next January, a renovation of the clubhouse designed by Goodman’s wife, Judi, who also designed the Blue Bell Inn — no one’s quite sure what to expect.
The new partners emphasize that there is no cause for concern. “I think a lot of country clubs were on a downward trend and needed a fresh face,” said the 43-year-old Dougherty, who will oversee what goes on in the restaurant, while Clibanoff handles the kitchen. “We thought this could be a great idea. I’d like to think we’ve upgraded the food already. That’s one way to show people we’re serious about this.”
There will be other changes, though. “We want to bring all the quality up and be a first-class golf and social facility,” said Goodman, who, while growing up in Abington and attending Beth Sholom Congregation, seldom accompanied his parents to the club — his mother, Shirley Pearlstine, still belongs. “You’re not looking at an ugly facility. It’s a great facility. We’re just going to bring it up to today’s standards — exactly what we did to the Blue Bell Inn, where we transformed it.”
That was largely the work of Clibanoff and Dougherty, who’d known Goodman for years but had never joined forces until 2013 when they bought the Inn. “I’m a visionary,” said Clibanoff, a Cheltenham native who also attended Beth Sholom. “I went into Ambler 17 years ago. Blue Bell Inn was a tough sell, changing an old culture. But I started in this business working at Coventry Market. My boss, Dan Rovner, taught me about quality and to treat people as family.
“That’s worked well for me,” he continued. “Now we’re taking an existing country club and bringing in a new structure and enthusiasm. Judi’s an accomplished designer. What we design will be beautiful. People will want to talk about and have their affairs there. But I don’t want us to be deemed as a ‘Jewish’ country club. I’d love to get a 50-50 split so everyone can enjoy this. The membership wanted this. There’s a sense of security because this isn’t a big corporation. This is Bruce and Scott and me. One of us will be here every day.”
So far, the members like what they see and hear. “There will be some changes,” said Tim Garde, a third-generation family member. “But it’s sustainable. The bottom line is, we got a really good local guy who wants to make it a success — and so do we. As a member for over 20 years, I’m excited we get to continue the tradition. I’m not going anywhere right now. I’m a happy camper.”
So is Lisa Goldenberg, who usually co-chairs Meadowlands’ Federation Day, which has yet to set a date for 2016. “Everyone’s real happy,” she said. “Bruce is a longstanding member in the Jewish community, so it’s not being sold to corporate America. Kevin and I grew up together at summer camp. Scott I’ve known for years and years. The dilemma here was it wasn’t financially sound. A lot of things on the menu were so inexpensive that it wasn’t feasible. People expected a lot for a little. They were so aggressive to get business they cut costs. You can only do that for so long.”
Indeed, Goodman and his partners say those days are over with. There will no longer be numerous incentive packages to attract new members, and the new menu will specialize in fresh, more health-conscious items.
But for now, the only visible changes besides that will be to the clubhouse, which will be known as the Country House of Meadowlands when it comes to booking weddings, Bar and Bat Mitzvahs, Christmas parties, etc.
The tennis courts and swimming pool will remain open, which seemed in question recently amid rumors they’d be sacrificed for new houses to go up. Once the previously agreed-upon deal with Whitpain Township — which had been posted on the Township’s website in complete detail for months — was scuttled last July, that seemed a strong possibility.
It may yet happen, though, due to the sensitive nature of the matter, no one is willing to say anything on the record.
“Whitpain Township decided it wanted to form a partnership with us to preserve the green space in perpetuity,” Mel Stein, Meadowlands’ volunteer marketing chairman, told the Exponent last May. “We still own the club, but they’ve been assured our 120 acres will always remain free.”
The township decision to reverse course in July came without warning and became cause for concern. Longtime employees began to leave, and people became hesitant to schedule events at the facility because of the uncertainty.
While Goodman understands their concerns, he’s confident the change will be good for all. “I think the story is we’re buying it to maintain a private club,” said the 61-year-old Goodman, who’s co-chaired the annual Israel Bonds luncheon the past 15 year, in addition to helping raise money for Boys Town High in Jerusalem. “It’s a great club and has always been a great club, with a nice golf course and wonderful members dedicated to its success. There’s a real fit here for us to be involved. The Blue Bell Inn team is going to do a fantastic job with food and beverage. We believe it’s a fantastic venue for outside events like weddings and Bar and Bat Mitzvahs.”
So, for now, Meadowlands Country Club, which will soon include the Country House of Meadowlands, will remain pretty much the same. As for the future, the question becomes almost existential.
“What makes something a ‘Jewish’ club?” wondered Lisa Goldenberg. “Is it because it’s exclusive? Can you have a seder there? What if they feature shellfish on the menu? Is it because the owner’s Jewish and committed to the Jewish community? Last year, for the first time, they had a Christmas tree. That may be more comfortable for newcomers and it may bring in more corporate events. That has nothing to do with Bruce taking over; I think it’s more a sign of the times.”
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