With its towering pine trees and par-71 golf course, Woodcrest Country Club in Cherry Hill has served as an enclave for South Jersey's elite going back almost a century.
But the club's future is now in doubt as a long-running dispute involving former members, a local bank, and millions in outstanding debt heads to bankruptcy court. The club filed for bankruptcy protection in U.S. District Court in Camden this week against debts owed to more than 100 creditors, including $10.7 million claimed by Sun National Bank in Vineland, N.J., according to court filings.
"It was clear the bank's plan as of the last deposition was there was no plan and they were going to keep the property and close down the course," said Steven Angstreich, a prominent lawyer who is a member and former president of the club. "We tried work out a deal, but when that was rejected there was only one thing we could do."
The bankruptcy filing is the latest chapter in a soap opera-like two years for Woodcrest, which was originally founded in 1929 as a club for Jewish families unable to gain membership at other area country clubs. But friction developed in 2010 when Woodcrest found itself unable to pay off a $8 million loan from Sun that financed the construction of its new clubhouse.
Complicating the situation, Sun vice chairman Sid Brown was a prominent member of the club, and despite the bank's policy at the time of not loaning money to golf courses — due to their perceived risky financial status — had agreed to extend the loan to Woodcrest, said club president Irv Richter.
"Our understanding is the bank intended to take over the club from the start," said Richter, chairman of the construction-project management firm Hill International in Marlton.
A spokeswoman for Sun declined to comment on the bankruptcy filing.
When in 2010 the club's membership voted against handing the club over to the bank, Brown and the majority of the club's then more than 200 senior members resigned — including Cherry Hill Mayor and wealthy local businessman Chuck Cahn.
"They signed a contract, and when they were unable to pay back the loan they had an obligation to the bank. The club was the collateral," Cahn said Friday.
Since then, the club has been struggling to stay afloat — fighting Sun in court while using gimmicks like one-day trial memberships to try to increase the ranks. Membership now totals almost 400 — not far from where it was in 2010 — but revenues are down significantly with the loss of the senior members, Richter said.
In its Chapter 11 filing, the club reports assets in a range of $1 million to $10 million and debts totaling over $12 million.
Golf courses across the United States have been struggling in recent years. Despite the sport's increased popularity, a period of rapid course construction in the 1980s and 1990s left the industry overbuilt, said Cindy Vizza, publisher of the National Club Association's publications.
Since 2009 more than 200 golf clubs have closed, according to the association.
"It's the recession. Joining a golf club is still a discretionary expense," Vizza said. "The newer generations are a little different, they're more family-oriented. They're not looking for a place where Dad can just go off and play golf. But the clubs are starting to adjust, especially those who are having membership issues."
With more than 150 acres in eastern Cherry Hill, Woodcrest sits on a sizable piece of open land in a densely populated slice of suburbia.
Around Woodcrest's locker rooms, rumors of plans for housing developments and backroom deals for the land are running rife.
Wealthy businessman and Democratic power broker George E. Norcross III once talked to club leaders about buying the course. (When that conversation occurred is also disputed: Richter says it was about five years ago, Norcross about 10.) Norcross, a managing partner in Philadelphia Media Network, the parent company of The Inquirer, said he is no longer interested.
The land is not zoned for housing, and Cahn said he had no intention of changing that designation and allowing the land to be developed.
"I think the neighbors would be pretty upset," he said. "My stance is that I hope it remains a golf course for the foreseeable future and if not, we could make it open space and keep it as a park."
For the members, who pay up to $8,000 a year to play at Woodcrest, the prospect of losing the club has come as a shock.
Almost exclusively Jewish up until four years ago, the club has opened up its membership and now counts more than half its members as non-Jewish.
A regular on the tennis courts, Steve Cohen said he had held off from joining the club until a few years ago because of the practice — despite the fact that his backyard abuts the first hole.
"It's such a beautiful place. There doesn't seem to be a good reason for it not to exist," he said.