PhillyDeals: Loan fight threatens Woodcrest Country Club

First hole at Woodcrest Country Club. A decision about an $8 million loan has led to controversy at the N.J. course.
First hole at Woodcrest Country Club. A decision about an $8 million loan has led to controversy at the N.J. course.
Posted: October 27, 2010

The trouble started with the new clubhouse.

Woodcrest Country Club, a pleasant 6,528-yard par-71 layout in the southwest corner of Cherry Hill, dates to 1929, when the Camden area's Jewish elite, unwelcome at other golf courses, started its own.

The building committee reviewed plans for a new clubhouse in 2002. Members agreed to borrow $8 million from Sun National Bank of Vineland, controlled by members of the Brown family, Woodcrest members and owners of trucking giant NFI Industries, to finance the new clubhouse.

That's when Woodcrest "made a huge mistake," says current club president Irvin E. Richter, chairman of the multinational construction project manager,

Hill International Ltd., of Marlton. The mistake?

The club did not require the members

who voted for the clubhouse to personally pay for it.

More than 100 have since left, leaving a smaller group with bigger financial obligations, and at a time when old-line country clubs have been struggling to attract young members.

"Last year we couldn't make the mortgage payments," Richter said. South Jersey golf-course values fell with other real estate. Woodbury Country Club closed; Pine Valley, larger than Woodcrest, was sold for a modest $3.7 million, implying that Woodcrest wasn't worth much more.

Richter says he and a group of friends offered Sun National $3.5 million for the club, if it would wipe out the debt. "The bank said the offer was insulting," Richter said.

Richter's allies hatched another plan: They'd put up $2 million to partly pay what the club owed Sun, and raise more by developing a strip of land along the driveway as senior citizen and affordable housing. Both are scarce in Cherry Hill, which has put the township under state pressure to allow more.

Richter says members had pledged the first $800,000 when Sun boss Sid Brown stood up at a fund-raising meeting last February and stomped on the proposal.

"He told them that the plan would not work" because Cherry Hill Township would never approve housing at that site, which Brown knew because of his "clout" with township officials, according to an account Woodcrest filed in Superior Court in Cumberland County, where Sun is based. "He urged everyone to save their money" and let Sun National take over the property, according to the filing.

Which Sun did, hiring a management firm and collecting members' dues, as it struggled with club leaders over a legal agreement that would formally cede control to the bank, and set conditions for the club staying open - briefly.

Through spokeswoman Noel R. Devine, Sid Brown and other Sun officials declined to comment, citing the litigation and "confidentiality reasons."

Richter rallied club members to defeat Sun in a final September vote on its plan. The bank promptly sued to take over the property; the club countersued, accusing Sun of taking club property when it withdrew its managers.

Richter says the fight is about more than Woodcrest's penury or Sun hanging tough. "Somebody had designs on the property," he said. "It's zoned institutional. You need someone to convince the mayor to change the zoning. One person in the town can do that: George Norcross," the influential Democratic Party leader, Cooper Hospital chairman and head of the Conner Strong Companies Inc.

Norcross and Richter are former political allies who fell out more than a decade ago. Richter blames the split on his refusal to fire a Norcross political opponent who worked for Richter, at Norcross' request. Norcross declined to comment.

So I called Cherry Hill Mayor Bernie Platt, a former Woodcrest member. The club "has been a green property since time immemorial. Cherry Hill would like it to stay green," he told me.

Green like a golf course, or green like a hospital or some other institution for which the land is currently zoned? "In my mind, it should stay as a country club or become a magnificent park for the township," Platt said.

Woodcrest is still green, as the bank's and the club's claims wind through the Cumberland County courthouse in Bridgeton. And Richter is still president. "I'm putting money in to keep this alive," he told me. "We're going to be around for the next couple of years."


Contact Joseph N. DiStefano at 215-854-5194 or JoeD@phillynews.com.

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