By Arthur Hirsch, The Baltimore Sun
4:31 PM EDT, June 23, 2012
Growing up in Dundalk, Kent Mosmiller knew about Sparrows Point Country Club. He spent summers on little boats along Bear Creek where he could check out the 40-foot cabin cruisers at the club marina and, beyond that, the green expanse of the golf course. It wasn't for him or his family.
The club was an enclave for what he called "white hats" at Bethlehem Steel, which established the club as a benefit for supervisors in the 1920s. Neither Mosmiller nor his parents ever worked for the company. "These were all the hoity-toity people who belonged here," Mosmiller said.
But that was then. Now he's at a table with a white cloth and cloth napkins in the clubhouse bar, where there's a flat-screen TV showing golf highlights and a few golfers flushed from an afternoon round in 100-degree heat. At 61, Mosmiller's a member now and head of the club's development committee — all of which says something about how things have changed since he was a boy and Bethlehem Steel and its Sparrows Point mill boomed.
Today the country club is considering selling off land to raise money for overdue maintenance and renovation projects. The development committee was formed about 18 months ago as club officials grappled with a cash crunch. The club has asked Baltimore County for a zoning change on 57 of its 274 acres that would allow hundreds of houses to be built along the waterfront, on the tennis courts and part of the golf course.
Mosmiller declined to say how much money the club could receive for the property, but he says members don't relish the idea. Better to have a large donation from a wealthy member, but that does not seem to be in the cards, he says.
"I don't think anybody here wants to do this," he said. "If we had our druthers, we'd keep it as it is."
Since Baltimore's manufacturing heyday to the recent bankruptcy of Sparrows Point's latest owner, RG Steel LLC, the country club's fortunes have mirrored the boom and bust of the steel industry. RG Steel is under court order to sell the Baltimore County mill this summer, making uncertain the future of its operations and jobs for thousands of workers.
But the country club's declining membership and finances have less to do with the steel mill's troubles than a general economic malaise, according to Mosmiller and club manager Paul V. Glomp III. The club has been open to nonemployees of Sparrows Point since 1985, after Bethlehem Steel sold it to the members amid the decline of American steel.
"The people that are capable of joining a country club are fewer and farther between," Glomp said. "It's that simple."
Still, if the zoning change and development are not approved, Glomp said, "the Sparrows Point Country Club is going to be just fine."
The County Council is expected to vote on the zoning change and hundreds of other requests in August as part of its redrawing of the entire county zoning map — a process conducted every four years.
Mosmiller is less sanguine about the situation, thinking ahead a decade and more, and wondering how the club would fare if the economy does not pick up in the near term. The club is running out of options for raising cash.
"If you say 'assess your members'" to pay for construction projects, Mosmiller said, "you might as well shoot yourself. They'll flee."
The club has 550 members, Glomp says, down from 800 six years ago. Of 62 boat slips on Bear Creek that are owned and rented out by the club, 37 are occupied, down from 59 a year ago.
A family membership with unlimited golf privileges goes for $6,000 a year, including meals. Memberships without golf cost less. If you sign up for two years, the club waives the $1,500 initiation fee, Mosmiller says.
That's relatively modest as country clubs dues go, but Sparrows Point was never a typical country club. For one thing, it's in Dundalk, an area not usually associated with golf, tennis and pleasure boating, nor with stretches of green and waterfront where egrets, hawks and other wildlife frolic.
Glomp recalls country club open houses at which people who had lived their whole lives in Pasadena in Anne Arundel County — which Mosmiller calls "Dundalk South" — said they had never heard of the place.
Glomp, an experienced chef who has been general manager for two years, says he imagines that's partly because of the location and the fact that for 60 of its 87 years, the club was open only to salaried employees of Bethlehem Steel.
Club membership was a workplace benefit, "like health care almost," said Walter Quick III, whose family joined when his father worked as a supervisor at Sparrows Point. Had it not been a job perk, he said, "we probably wouldn't have been able to belong to a club like this."
He was 3 years old when the family signed up in 1955 — high times for the company and the club. The club had just moved to this location north of the plant from its original spot south of the steel mill, on Jones Creek. The clubhouse and first nine holes of the golf course opened in 1954, followed in the next few years by another 18 holes, tennis courts, a swimming pool and what an official history calls a "yacht pier."
Bethlehem Steel was up to about 30,000 employees, boasting "the greatest metal-making capacity on earth" according to Mark Reutter, author of "Making Steel: Sparrows Point and the Rise and Ruin of American Industrial Might."
The club is a testament to those halcyon days, even if there has sometimes been tension in the cultural anomaly of a country club tied to a blue-collar industry.
Former member Rex Fulghum, who retired from Bethlehem Steel in the early 1990s after 37 years, recalls an occasion at a dinner when the waiter took orders for martinis, wine and other refined libations. He ordered a beer, prompting several at the table to change their minds: Come to think of it, they'd have a beer, too.
"I'm not a pretentious person," said Fulghum, 74, who lives in Dundalk and belonged to the club for 27 years, quitting when it went public. "My name was always posted on the bulletin board for being late on my dues. But I didn't care."
These days, the club needs all the cash it can raise. The golf course irrigation system is nearly 40 years old. Glomp says the 58-year-old clubhouse is due for new decor, plumbing and electrical systems.
The pool house is holding up well enough, but Glomp imagines it would have to be torn down at some point to put up a more attractive building. He found the institutional tiled interior walls so unsightly that he recently had a high school student cover them with murals of undersea scenes: green turtles, gray dolphins, purple whales and golden striped fin fish on a deep blue background.
The proposed development plan is sketchy, and the club has not even chosen a developer. The club envisions about 200 townhouses on a portion of those 57 acres along part of the waterfront and Wise Avenue. The zoning request is the first step in a project that would probably not be completed for at least three years, Mosmiller says.
But if the numbers don't work out, Glomp says, the members who are happy with things as they are might get their wish.
"If we get through this process, and it's not a good deal for the club, we're not going to do it," Glomp said.
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