A series of enhancements, inside and out, have helped to revive the peaceful appeal of Rockaway River CC, just in time for its 100th anniversary.
Rockaway River Country Club is planning for 2015 to be a year of nice, round numbers. It will mark the 100th anniversary of the club’s founding in Denville, N.J. (and as part of the celebration, it will host the New Jersey State Open). The club is also driving to achieve another major milestone by the end of next year—building the number of proprietary members to 300, to reach its membership cap.
Momentum towards reaching that number has been spurred recently by a membership-drive incentive program that is designed to help fill 15 remaining golf memberships. But for full success in the drive to 300 in year 100, a much bigger contributor may be what is now providing much of the incentive behind the incentive.
A series of facility and infrastructure improvements made at the property over the past few years has not only served to get existing members more excited about touting Rockaway River to their friends and associates, it’s also injected a new vibrancy into the club that has become a strong selling point on its own for anyone who might visit.
“Now our membership can get the word out that our facilities are top-notch,” says the club’s President, Zenon Dawidowicz. “Combined with our dues structure, our service—which we think is second to none—and our location, we think it’s easy to show now why we’re the best-kept secret in New Jersey.”
Away From It All
Given Rockaway River’s location, it’s surprising that there would be too many who might not know about the club. Denville is only about 25 air miles from the George Washington Bridge and Newark International Airport, and because of its easy access to major transportation routes, it sits as a hub in northern New Jersey’s busy Morris County, which is considered part of the New York metropolitan area.
The town itself, though, has retained a small-town charm, with a population just over 15,000 and a small hospital serving as its largest employer. Rockaway River CC’s property is adjacent to the hospital, and the club’s setting—with the Rockaway River running through the picturesque, rolling golf course designed in 1923 by Devereux Emmet (with input from Donald Ross)—adds to the neighborhood’s quiet nature.
As the new millennium began, however, another source of quiet had set in at the club, from a prolonged period of inactivity during which needed upgrades to facilities were put off. After the recession dealt a body blow to the membership ranks that couldn’t be ignored, the club’s leadership set out to create, and implement, a plan for reviving the appeal of Rockaway River CC, both for those members who remained and the new ones it needed to attract.
A series of improvement phases were planned, to be funded by money borrowed through a refinancing (the one benefit of the recession was the ability to now obtain much more favorable loan terms). The first step brought an upgrade to the club’s poolhouse; that was followed by improvements to Rockaway River’s stand-alone pro shop building, along with badly needed parking lot and driveway enhancements that alleviated what had been confusing traffic patterns as people tried to enter or leave the club, Dawidowicz says.
The positive response to those projects emboldened the Board and management to then turn their attention to Rockaway River’s 25,000-sq. ft. clubhouse. An addition had been put on the clubhouse at the end of the 1990s and some of its existing rooms were made over. But with the option to build a new clubhouse not presenting itself 15 years later (the club had established a $5 million capital budget after the poolhouse project), it was now time to see how to get the most out of the funds that remained, and the building, for the next phase.
Originally, Dawidowicz says, it was thought that the clubhouse renovation work would have to be limited to “just a few interior rooms” that clearly stood out as the most tired and most in need of updating.
But as Rockaway River began to work with its architect and interior design firms (Jefferson Group Architects/Judd Brown Designs), doors were literally opened to reveal many more possibilities of all that could be accomplished, while staying well within budget. “They were great in showing us how there were many subtle and inexpensive things that we could do throughout the building, and outside it, that would give us a big bang for our buck,” Dawidowicz says.
As a result, the project expanded so that nearly every room within the clubhouse received the benefit of some measure of a facelift and functional upgrade—and the renovation was also extended to include a patio expansion and enhancement that has proved to have the most positive impact of all.
Dramatic aesthetic transformations were achieved in many rooms merely through contemporary applications of new paint and new approaches to floor, ceiling, window and lighting treatments, along with new furnishings. And, as the project moved from room to room, opportunities were found to eliminate walls and reposition service areas, to create a much more open feeling throughout the building while also making it easier for both members and staff to move around within it.
Just as importantly, the changes provided much greater flexibility for how Rockaway River’s dining venues and function rooms could be used and changed as needed, according to demands presented both by daily member activity and larger special events.
While all of the interior changes helped to make up for decades of lost time in advancing the overall look of the clubhouse’s interior, room was also found to include interesting and fitting nods to Rockaway River’s rich history, and to help properly prepare the building for 2015’s centennial. Tasteful displays of archival material from the club’s past were added to many rooms, most notably through the use of narrow, horizontal black-and-white panoramic photographs and renderings that appear in spaces above doorways and along the top of some walls.
Out the Door and “Through the Roof”
The fresh new contemporary look of the clubhouse’s dining venues, along with the immense appeal created by the expanded and upgraded patio area, quickly combined to “send member dining through the roof” after all the work was completed in time for the 2014 season, reports Michael Ferguson, who has been Rockaway River CC’s General Manager since 2005.
Much of that is due to the enhanced appeal of the club’s bar areas and patio, which proved to be the perfect complement for a popular Friday Happy Hour feature, when members can get a complimentary drink from 6 to 7, that Rockaway River introduced three years ago. “With the patio we can now have total seating for as many as 220, almost half of which can be outside, depending on how things are set up,” Ferguson reports. “We had many Fridays where if you didn’t call by noon, you couldn’t get seating for that night.”
The added capacity provided by the expanded patio has also made it possible to spread out service for special theme nights like Sunday night pasta dinners, Ferguson says, and the open-air setting has made those events an even bigger hit, especially when the weather cooperates as well as it did during what was mostly a made-to-order summer in the northeast U.S. this season. And from the staff’s perspective, having the extra space to work with definitely makes it easier to provide timely, high-touch and high-quality service, Ferguson adds.
The patio’s flexibility is further enhanced by casual firepits that use bioethanol fuel cells and do not require gas lines, so they can be moved to accommodate crowds and groups as needed—even out onto the golf course.
“It was important to make sure everything in every room, as well as outside, could be moved easily when needed,” Ferguson notes. “There’s no such thing as a ‘typical’ day for us—we’re always looking at moving things both from room to room and within each room, to make quick adjustments for today’s charity function and tomorrow’s Bar Mitzvah, all around our regular member dining.”
Having that flexibility has now become even more important, he adds, after the changes that have been made at Rockaway River have sparked even more interest in catered events.
“Historically we’ve had four to five weddings a year, and I can see that’s now going to more than double,” Ferguson says. And while he’s seen about an 18% increase in a la carte activity this year, the banquet side has also picked up to the point where he’s seen a swing, from the club’s traditional 70% weighting for a la carte, to a level that will be more in the 65% to 60% range this year. Going forward, Ferguson expects that ratio to continue to trend towards reflecting even more banquet business.
The Buzz Barometer
While Zen Dawidowicz hasn’t been tracking numbers as closely as his General Manager, he has his own way of measuring the impact and success of Rockaway River’s clubhouse upgrades.
“I’ve always believed that your harshest critic should be your barometer, and we didn’t have one negative comment [about the renovation work],” Dawidowicz reports. “I went out of my way to try to find them, but all I got was oohs and ahhs.
“It really created a lot of buzz, and there was pretty much unanimous agreement that we made the clubhouse 100% better,” he adds. “It was certainly clear from the reaction we got that it was time to modernize, especially if we wanted to drive memberships by appealing to the younger generation. We had to present a more casual feel, but that didn’t mean we had to overdo it and lose some of the history and what’s made [Rockaway River] special over the years.
“The look we have now really fits with what the club’s membership has always been about,” Dawidowicz feels. “It’s a diverse and very social membership, and not a concentration of one group like doctors or Wall Street people like you’ll find in some [New York-area] clubs.”
That diversity is also being reflected in a broadening activity mix at Rockaway River. In addition to steady golf activity that sees about 19,000 rounds a year, the club has seen significant growth in paddle tennis, with about half of the players being women. It also introduced bocce in its pool area this year, which proved so popular that an all-family tournament was quickly established.
With the parts of the clubhouse that members and guests now see and use now having been brought well into the 21st century, at the same time that touches were added to pay proper homage to Rockaway River’s earliest days, the club may next turn its attention to back-of-the-house projects. “You have to give kudos to Michael [Ferguson] and his staff for the work they’ve been doing out of our current kitchen, which has been in pretty much the same shape forever,” Dawidowicz says. “Especially with the volumes they’ve had to handle increasing so much, we need to look into trying to find ways we could expand the kitchen space and give them a better area to work in.”
New attention might also be paid to taking a renewed look at how Rockaway River could enhance what lies beyond the clubhouse, too. “We’re having some master-plan discussions to see what we might be able to do to make the golf course more eye-appealing, just as we’ve done for the clubhouse,” says Dawidowicz. “Our greenskeeper does a fabulous job, but with the river and other features, there’s the potential to make other parts of our property look even more wonderful, too.”