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Union League, with new Shore place, seeks country club vote

They'll have to sign up a lot of golfers to make Torresdale-Frankford deal profitable

Philadelphia's Union League club, whose founders backed the winning side in the Civil War and have been prominent in city business and social circles ever since, are weighing a bold expansion by taking over the historic but financially pressured Torresdale-Frankford Country Club up on Grant Ave. in Northeast Philly.

A Wednesday membership meeting will seek to ratify a proposal to take over the 118-year-old course and its clubhouse, on 150 acres, 14 miles from Center City via I-95 and State Rd.. According to a presentation made to members on March 25, the Union Leauge hopes to offer "unlimited golf" to members for $3,600 a year, plus pool, tennis, dining, trap and skeet shooting. That would raise total Union League fees for "unlimited golfers" to around $8,000 a year, which boosters say is what you pay for suburban country clubs anyway, once you get past the initial member's bond. Club officers wouldn't speak for this item.

Under the proposal, the League would pay $2.5 million to fund "all liabilities" for Torresdale-Frankford, and borrow another $8 million "to fund capital improvements." The presentation noted the League already has $15 million in long-term debt, or almost $10,000 for each of its 1,550 regular members (more than 10 times as many as Torresdale-Frankford) (the League has an even larger number of senior, junior, clergy, military and out-of-town members who pay fractional dues) (the League also has a $6.2 million endowment). Boosters promise, in boldface type, that they will not hit current League members up with any special assessment to pay for the deal.

Since the proposal projects the golf club will operate at an annual surplus of less than $200,000 on revenues of $4.5 million -- at levels that imply a few hundred members to start with -- the debt service will require the club keep signing up members. The League admits in its presentation that the National Golf Foundation expects 500 U.S. golf courses will close over the next six years. But courses in cities that offer "a vast array of amenities" and "innovative facilities" will do well, the League predicts, citing its consultants.

Separately, the League has recently acquiring the Backyard Restaurant in Stone Harbor for $600,000 and plans to open it "as a wonderful break-even seasonal BYOB" for members by Memorial Day.

Why is the League adding property? The proposal points out that League membership has shifted: while two-thirds lived on the Main Line (with its many local country clubs) in 2000, only about 4 in 10 do now, while the proportions living in South Jersey and Center City have roughly doubled. Similar clubs in New York and Atlanta have country club affiliates (Travers Island for the New York Athletic Club, Cherokee for Atlanta's Capital City Club.) And if things go south, they can always sell the properties, assuming there's a market.