The Spokane Club carries a prestigious name in Inland Northwest business circles, but as the downtown institution seeks to expand, not everyone is eager to share that name.
Members of Spokane’s Brotherhood of Friends fraternal club voted overwhelmingly Thursday to reject a merger with the Spokane Club. Despite enticements such as free limited lifetime membership at the Spokane Club, BOF members voted 302-188 not to share their 60-year-old downtown dining and dancing hall with the nearby Spokane Club.
The club’s proposal to merge with the BOF was the latest in a series of moves the Spokane Club has undertaken in an effort to become Spokane’s premier social and athletic club. Earlier this month, the club purchased all available tee times in 1996 at The Highlands, a public golf course in Post Falls. It also attempted to purchase Central Park Racquet Club.
Even though the racquet club and BOF deals fell through, officials say the Spokane Club, 1002 W. Riverside, isn’t through with its expansion drive.
“We will continue to explore opportunities to diversify services, and especially try to solve members’ parking problem downtown,” said Tim Fennessy, Spokane Club president. “The BOF (rejection) is unfortunate, but we’re still hoping to move forward with plans to add to the club.”
But as the Spokane Club expands, members and leaders are bracing for growing pains. The rejection of the BOF merger highlights the difficult road that the Spokane Club must navigate to maintain its tradition while reaching out to a more diverse membership base and expanding its array of services and facilities.
Ever since the Spokane Club suggested the merger, the proposal provoked strong reactions on both sides of the fence.
Opponents said the Spokane Club is an aggressive corporation looking for a monopoly in social clubs in the Inland Northwest. The BOF, they say, could have become the latest victim to be eaten in a three-year acquisition binge.
“Why should we give away our club?” asked Norman McLellan, BOF president. “They’ll just sell the land and close the club. Then 60 years of memories will be gone.”
More important, the merger would have changed BOF’s essence by flooding its signature, starry-ceiling dance hall with power-tie professionals from the Spokane Club. The average age of BOF members is 75, according to BOF statistics, while it’s 45 at the Spokane Club.
“They’ll come in and turn our big-band dance hall into a shake, rattle and roll disco!” said one man who spoke at a recent BOF debate on the merger proposal.
But Spokane Club officials - disappointed to learn of the merger rejection Friday - saw the disparate average ages of the clubs’ members as one of the biggest incentives to merge. The newcomers would have boosted the club’s roster of senior citizens during a time when the Spokane Club has become the favored haunt of upper-middle-class couples with young families.
The Spokane Club lacks enough seniors to continue scheduled events such as bus tours of nearby historic towns and senior aerobics. But “with the BOF members, those would become advantageous programs,” said Alan Arsenault, Spokane Club general manager.
BOF members also would have helped fill tee times at The Highlands. Last month the club purchased all available tee times for the course’s 1996 season, turning a popular public golf course into an exclusive venue for Spokane Club members and wealthy Highlands residents.
Although the buyout has raised the hackles of some golfers, the majority have taken The Highlands’ privatization in stride.
“We’re disappointed, of course, but it’s getting so that to play golf, you have to join a private club these days,” veteran golfer Yvonne Fredricksen of Coeur d’Alene said Thursday while loading her golf cart at The Highlands.
Fredricksen, a Spokane Club member during the 1970s, said she quit the club because it had become “nothing more than a bunch of boring people eating out.” Now, though, she’s considering rejoining for golf and athletic facilities.
The Spokane Club hopes other energetic Inland Northwest residents will also consider joining.
In addition to golf, the club also hopes to become the pre-eminent tennis and racquet club in the region within the next year, Arsenault said.
The club, which already has racquetball facilities in its 80,000-square-foot downtown athletic facility, had its eyes on the Central Park Racquet Club earlier in the year. But this month club leaders announced that the club will not buy out Central Park, 5900 E. 4th. Central Park owner Don Foss would not comment on why the deal fell through.
Spokane Club members, who own the non-profit club in a partnership agreement, are undaunted and say the current expansion blitz will proceed. Plans have already been drawn for a mezzanine-level parking garage and second pool for lap swimming in a patio annex facing the Spokane River. The club’s day-care services also will be bolstered by the end of the year, Arsenault said.
In 1992, the Spokane Club undertook a $5 million expansion that added two floors and a 100-space parking garage to its athletic annex.
At the same time, the club also hoped to add two floors to the top of the four-story building to make room for more conditioning facilities, locker rooms and a formal, roof-top dining room.
During the 1992 expansion, the club entered negotiations to buy the headquarters of the adjacent Spokane Area Chamber of Commerce. But the Chamber’s $1 million asking price was too steep, club officials said.
Social, athletic and fraternal clubs across the country have been losing members since the late ‘80s, and the only way to recoup membership is to broaden clubs’ appeal, Arsenault said.
“We’re in a situation where members and their spouses work,” he said. “They don’t have much time to spend in the club doing nothing. They will only use the club if it offers the services they want - golf, dancing, tennis, etc.”
To fund the new facilities, the club hopes to increase membership. One incentive is the club’s “legacy program,” which offers memberships to members’ relatives for a reduced initiation fee.
Other area clubs are also expanding in an attempt to increase membership in Spokane’s highly competitive athletic-facilities market.
Sta-Fit, which has about 25,000 users at six locations between Spokane and Coeur d’Alene, recently completed an indoor gymnasium at Sta-Fit South on the South Hill. And Sta-Fit’s downtown facility will be expanded from 6,500 to 18,000 square feet and moved to a different, more prominent location by next year, said owner Jeff Brannon.
Brannon said the Spokane Club’s push to expand and diversify mirrors a nationwide trend to increase membership at private athletic clubs.
“As any good business operator, the Spokane Club is just trying to stay current with the market,” Brannon said Thursday. “And the market in Spokane … could use some diversity with golf and other services.”
But expansion is a tricky issue. Managers walk a fine line to maximize profits but keep overcrowding to a minimum.
The Spokane Club needs about 100 more families to join with full athletic privileges to maximize profits. But based on the surprising success of the legacy program, Arsenault expects a waiting list - even for relatives - when the club hits its 3,200-family maximum next month.
Adding members through mergers presents special problems. If the Spokane Club chooses to expand by merging with other area fraternal organizations, BOF-style acrimony may rear its head again.
Some Spokane Club members who pay up to $600 initiation fees and $80 monthly fees were offended that BOF members who pay $35 yearly dues - would have gotten free limited lifetime memberships to the Spokane Club.
Others feared that the two groups would have clashed.
“I don’t really know how to say it, but we’re different people. We have different interests,” said Spokane Club member Ruth Foster.
, DataTimes ILLUSTRATION: 2 Color photos
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