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The Straits Times, 17 Jan 05
Ailing country club loses battle for new members
by Daryl Loo

AFTER a 15-month battle to revive the Marina Country Club in Punggol by offering membership at a fraction of the original price, its managers have thrown in the towel, saying they are losing about $150,000 a month.

From next month, the club will terminate the memberships of the 600 plus who belong to it and open its facilities to the public.

The 9.7ha club owns the Ubin Resort on Pulau Ubin, as well as a boathouse that can hold more than 700 craft, sea sports facilities like water-skiing and wakeboarding, restaurants and an Olympic-sized pool. The club, one of three yachting clubs here, was built as Punggol Marina in 1997 at a cost of $50 million. It charged around $30,000 for membership and about $120 a month. Its downhill slide began when it amassed $18 million in debt. This came to light in 2003 and it was placed in receivership. Membership was terminated and none of those who belonged then got their fees back.

Private investment firm PM Marina, made up of investors in such entertainment businesses as karaoke and boating, ran it then. It eventually bought it in May 2003 for $11 million and relaunched it as the Marina Country Club in November that year promising to provide a pool, a gym, a spa and a KTV lounge. To boost membership, it offered entry to the club for $1,500 and monthly fees of $60.

The strategy, said its chief executive, Mr Eric Low, was to reach out to everyone living in Punggol and the east. He hoped to attract at least 3,000 members in the first year. In an interview last week, he told the Straits Times about 600 had joined. 'The critical mass... is just not there. So the shareholders have decided to restructure the club,' he said. Asked about long-term plans, he would only say that 'things are still on the drawing board; we're still waiting for some better ideas'.

Members were told of the club's latest direction last week in a letter, which said it would 'invite new service providers to open restaurants, shops, etc'. The managers promised to refund their entrance fees, as well as waive their January subscriptions, and offered them discounts on food and berthing fees till the end of the year.

To cut costs, the letter said, Ubin Resort would be open only for group events. But this is small consolation to businessman Benjamin Heng, 30, who paid $28,800 to join in 1998 and another $1,500 when it became Marina. 'I signed up in 2003 as it promised things would be better. But they were actually worse,' said the avid boater, who chartered craft to take his clients on cruises. 'It took some time before most of the facilities were open and there were hardly any boats for hire. The place was not active at all.'

A 50-year-old retiree, who wanted to be known only as Mrs Tan, said the same. Last time she was at the club, in April, the pool was still closed and it was very quiet. 'So I didn't go back again.'

Other marinas here have faced difficulties since the 1997 financial crisis too. Raffles Marina in Tuas had its loan restructured in May 2003, when it could not repay DBS Bank some $45 million. A year earlier, the Republic of Singapore Yacht Club in West Coast Park appealed to members to pay up nearly $500,000 in unpaid dues. A director of club membership brokerage Tee Up Marketing Enterprises, Ms Fion Phua, blames Marina's current predicament on poor marketing. 'Not a lot of people knew about the club or its $1,500 offer,' she said. But Marina's Mr Low puts his club's situation down to the boating fraternity reducing after the downturn. 'Not many people own boats now,' he observed.


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