With nearly 450 years between them, several central Illinois country clubs are proving that what’s old is new again.
Decades of change and a modern pandemic have not derailed four social organizations with deep roots in local history and some noteworthy milestones in 2022. Indeed, the Country Club of Peoria clocks in at 125 years, the Illinois Valley Yacht (IVY) Club at 115 years, the Pekin Country Club at 106 years, and Mt. Hawley Country Club at an even 100.
A renewed demand for outdoor activities helped keep all four resilient during these trying economic times, reflecting one of the original missions to indulge in a healthy outdoors lifestyle. A cornerstone of each organization is ongoing membership recruitment and retention, and these clubs are finding new audiences again. What they are discovering is a reaffirmation of the adage that how Peoria goes, so go its social clubs.
Representatives of all four clubs noted the membership decreases during downturns, but with younger professionals and families moving to the Tri-County area in the midst of Peoria being recognized by U.S. News & World Report magazine as one of America’s 50 best places to live, there has been a resurgence.
COUNTRY CLUB OF PEORIA
Chris Reis, general manager of the Country Club of Peoria, acknowledges that finding and retaining personnel has been a challenge coming out of such an extreme social and economic upheaval. He credits the club’s leadership with working smarter. Evaluating overall operations and efficiency has been key to financial stability.
Plus, there’s a new mindset that “the way we’ve always done it” is not necessarily in the best interests of the club and its members today, he said. Membership was about 475 when he came to the County Club of Peoria in 2017, dropped to 387 during the pandemic before rising to about 455 as of May, said Reis. A dedicated board that stressed transparency with members was crucial to that rebound.
“We’ve found a balance of being everything to everybody within reason,” Reis said. “And that’s what clubs are all about. The challenge is how to do that while retaining tradition and being flexible at the same time.”
All four clubs continue to move beyond the long-time stereotype of the “old guys’s club,” taking on members with the widest range of diversity in age and ethnicity in their history. Reis said 65 percent of new CCP members in the last 18 months were age 35 and younger as the club focused on its family-friendly environment.
The current CCP team is one of the best he’s ever worked with in his 25 years in the club industry, said Reis. Many club members are business owners themselves and understand the value of taking care of staff. It also helps that many employees are central Illinois natives who know the community well and support its events, while steering around scheduling conflicts with the latter. Meanwhile, fine dining has returned as a core of club attendance.
ILLINOIS VALLEY YACHT AND CANOE CLUB
A record Illinois River flood in 2013 didn’t sink the resolve of the Illinois Valley Yacht and Canoe Club and neither did a pandemic. In celebrating its 115th anniversary, club members continue to promote the international fellowship of boating and sailing with hundreds of representative burgees (flags or pennants) decorating the clubhouse interior.
Commodore Wendi Ramsay said many area families have found a home at the IVY Club as it continues to evolve into a casual and family-friendly atmosphere for all ages. Members don’t even have to be boaters, though many do eventually dip their toes into the sport.
While celebrating its traditions, the club has brought on board younger members who can now move up the ranks faster with the lowering of age requirements. Ramsay said central Illinois residents sometimes complain about Peoria’s “limitations” but the community’s size and location offer a perfect combination of resources and natural beauty.
A member for 32 years, Rear Commodore Pete Bennett has witnessed the evolution of the IVY Club, from a time when kids grew up there to waning interest to the current surge of younger families. It’s challenging at times to keep awareness about the club afloat but sailing classes in the spring along with an increasing number of radio control model boat enthusiasts have bolstered the fleet of members and guests.
Tim Mangan, vice commodore, noted that the IVY Club is also the only boating club open year-round in central Illinois, with a variety of social activities that keep members connected even when Mother Nature blows cold.
Camaraderie is key, Ramsay said, with the emphasis on sailing sportsmanship, no matter the skill level. That trickles down to the youth swim teams. Add to that the celebrations and parties and the old stiff stereotype of yachting is sailing off into the sunset.
The club currently has about 200 members.
PEKIN COUNTRY CLUB
Late summer 2021 may have seemed like a crazy time for a country club general manager to take on a new job, but Greg Ayers has no regrets about assuming the helm of the Pekin Country Club. His long-time love of the hospitality industry was not dampened by a pandemic because an underlying mission of the local club continues: engaging with and impacting the local economy.
A well-run club can boost financial traction and be a valuable resource for the business community, Ayers said.
The Pekin club is in the midst of a membership growth spurt, perhaps attributed to the pent-up demand for a return to “normalcy” following the pandemic. The staff works hard to welcome back former members and to introduce newcomers, he said, at a club that serves as one of Pekin’s largest event venues.
The recreational opportunities have never been better as members have overflowed the 18-hole course and pool with the arrival of spring. These amenities have been huge selling points for younger members and families, which is an important component of long-term stability, while also honoring the desires of long-time members. Meanwhile, the restaurant offers fine dining or a hearty cheeseburger, Ayers said.
Physical facilities always require upkeep, and major renovations inside the clubhouse now offer more variety in meeting member and community space needs, he said. And out on the golf course, the sand bunkers are undergoing major facelifts this year.
Though 106 years old, the Pekin Country Club is celebrating 60 years at its current location, which officially opened on Independence Day, 1962. The original country club golf course – which once hosted legendary golfer Sam Snead — was on the site of what is now Pekin High School.
The Club has 355 members, 75 percent of them golfers.
MT. HAWLEY COUNTRY CLUB
Planning remains a critical component of long-term survival, said Michael Pace, general manager at Mt. Hawley, which marks its centennial this year.
He said national trends reveal a renewed desire for private clubs that offer amenities such as golfing and swimming in an inviting, safety-conscious environment. Structure and healthy outlets for young members are added value as they find a place on golf and swim teams. People simply want to get outdoors and be together again, he added, and the whole experience benefits the entire family.
Mt. Hawley has experienced the same issues with staffing as other clubs, especially for seasonal work. Yet the club also has been blessed to keep good employees. “We let them do their jobs,” he said.
Investment continues. Pace said that physical upgrades can be costly but are worth it, especially when they can be done without a member assessment, noting new cart passes throughout the sprawling green golf course at Mt. Hawley. Interior and exterior clubhouse renovations have continued in recent years.
“Peoria is a great community,” said Pace, who moved here from Virginia in late 2019. “We have a very supportive membership.”