The deal was struck, as so many are, over lunch at the Center Club. This time though, the private downtown club was both setting and subject of the $400,000 transaction.
The proposal: Bring into the hushed and formal club something more commonly associated with the loud and boozy — a sports pub. For an establishment where previous changes in the dress code allowing the tieless and the denimed caused some harrumphing, it might have been a tough sell.
"We went to a long-term member of the club, who is a frequent user of it," said David Nevins, president of the club located on the 15th and 16th floors of the Transamerica building on Light Street. "He said, 'I love it, how much will it cost, I'll pay for it.'"
That member is Peter Angelos, the owner of the Baltimore Orioles. In addition to throwing in more than $300,000 toward the costs of transforming the space now serving as the club's grill room, he's handed over naming rights. The Orioles Pub at the Center Club is scheduled to open the day after Labor Day.
While Angelos did not return calls for comment, his son and member of his law firm, Louis F. Angelos, said the pub would offer a more casual option to what is already the city's "foremost" business club of its kind.
"It will generate interest and business and get more people to join," he said. "The more casual atmosphere is the key."
Like others of its ilk, the Center Club is seeking a place for itself in a much-changed business climate seemingly at odds with the kind of formal dining and socializing that it represents.
The white-tablecloth lunch has so given way to takeout at the keyboard that the term "al desko" was added to the Oxford English Dictionary last year. Networking increasingly has shifted toward online rather than face-to-face, and many professionals have long since abandoned the suit-and-tie uniform of club members.
"We don't want to have to deny entrance to Mark Zuckerberg," Nevins said wryly of the famously casual Facebook founder.
But at the same time, loosening up on club formalities to appeal to younger, more casual potential members comes at the risk of offending the traditionalists.
"Every time the dress code was discussed, there was one gentleman who always started shaking his head in his suit and bow tie," recalled John E. Pastalow III, 38, who heads the club's Young Members Committee (and whose LinkedIn profile picture shows him in similar neckwear).
Most members, though, accept that less formality is "an evolution that has to occur," Pastalow said.
In truth, the Center Club was never as hidebound as the classic old-boys retreats depicted in New Yorker cartoons, with their wingback chairs, aged rugs and equally aging members. In fact, it was created 53 years ago as something of an alternative, open to African-Americans, Jews and eventually women. And, particularly after a 2009 renovation, it is decidedly sleek and modern, a high-rise aerie with sweeping city and harbor views.
A sports pub makes a certain sense at least logistically for the Center Club, according to Nevins, who heads a Towson-based public relations firm. Many members already use the club's equally exclusive underground parking when they have tickets to Camden Yards, a short walk away, he said.
"But they couldn't have dinner here before going to the game," Nevins said of the casually dressed sports fans, "because you don't want to wear a suit and tie to the game."
Come September, those members will be able to come up to the pub on the 16th floor, dine and then head to the game. At least as long as they're wearing stadium attire on the nicer end of the scale — team jerseys, say, or khakis and a golf-style shirt. Ratty T-shirts and flip-flops will still be verboten. Plus, they'll be asked not to parade through the main dining room on the 15th floor, where jackets remain "recommended."
The pub will have an appropriately casual menu of burgers, panini and the like, plus a raw bar. Members with a hankering for the Dover sole or other fancy fare featured downstairs can order off that menu as well. There will be multiple TVs and sofas along with regular dining tables, as well as Orioles memorabilia and framed front pages of The Baltimore Sun featuring local pro and college sports triumphs.
Private clubs have had to adapt to survive, said consultant Bill McMahon. While he was not familiar with the Center Club's new sports pub, McMahon said it sounds in line with what he advises his clients seeking to attract younger members.
"Get a very casual environment, relax your dress code, relax your rules on the use of technology," said McMahon, chairman of the St. Louis-based McMahon Group that advises private clubs.
It's possible to do that without turning off members who prefer a more traditional atmosphere, he said, by creating separate spaces, as the Center Club is doing.
"The issue is, if city clubs stay old-fogey, formal, very strict dress code, no tech devices, they're dying," he said.
The Center Club has been building membership since dropping under 1,600 during the worst of the recession. While it remains invitation-only, the club is seeking new members and offers a variety of levels, including resident, nonresident, intermediate, junior and retired, as well as corporate and nonprofit. Initiation fees range from $500 to $1,250, and annual dues from $250 to $1,200.
Membership is now about 2,000, which is "growing ever so slowly," Nevins said. He'd like to see it up to 2,500 and thinks the pub will help achieve that.
It's been a balancing act — the dress code has been relaxed, although not throughout the club. Denim, for example, is only allowed in the Light Street deck of the main dining room.
"Every club is trying to figure it out," Nevins said.
Some changes are beyond the club's control. While once much of the professional set was concentrated downtown and within walking distance of the club, now it's "stretched out" — to Harbor East, Towson, Hunt Valley and beyond, Nevins said.
For some professionals, private clubs simply are not on their radar. Luke Cooper, a tech entrepreneur who gives his age as mid-30s, said he prefers to network online or at subject-specific gatherings rather than at a general business club.
"You want engagement," said Cooper, whose 2-year-old company, Peach, develops mobile applications, including one that allows consumers to shop for warranties for electronics. "It's not enough to have people at the club handing out business cards."
Cooper said he's received invitations in the past to join a couple of Baltimore's private clubs, and thinks membership might have made more sense back when he was working as a corporate lawyer. Now though, his networking needs are handled elsewhere.
"Definitely, a lot more of it happens online — LinkedIn, Conspire," he said. "It happens around topics I'm interested in."
Pastalow, of the young members committee, joined 10 years ago and enjoys the relaxed atmosphere among members of different ages and professional ranks, something he said he doesn't experience at other gathering spots.
"I always tell the young members, 'Don't feel you can't go up and say hello if you see the CEO of "XYZ Company" at the club.' You may not feel like you can do that if you see him on the street," said Pastalow, a Bel Air-based financial advisor.
"But you're both members," he said. "It's a level playing field."