Play Live Radio
Next Up:
0:00 0:00
Available On Air Stations

Business Brief: As University Club Closes, Competitor River Club Gaining Members

River Club dining room decorated for a wedding
Gate Hospitality
The River Club includes more than 13,000 square feet of dining space on top of Jacksonville's Wells Fargo building.

The University Club on Jacksonville’s Southbank is closing this month after nearly 50 years of offering its members full-service dining with a spectacular skyline view.

employees look out window
Credit Michelle Corum / WJCT News
(L to R) Slim Allen, Margaret Atter and Liza Flowers, University Club employees, say they'll miss their sky-high workplace view.

Dallas-based Club Corp announced in September it would close the club by the end of the year.  

Dining room manager Slim Allen remembers the day employees found out.

“They sat everybody down, and he gave his spiel and said what he had to say, and that’s when it all hit the fan,” Allen said.

Atter at desk
Credit Michelle Corum / WJCT News
Margaret Atter, member services representative, has been working at the University Club for more than 30 years.

Club member services representative Margaret Atter says she was shocked.  

“I cried myself to sleep and I woke up crying,” she said.  “It was like, ‘This has been 35 years of our lives,’ and for them to come in here and just say, ‘It’s over,’ and we have been part of the Jacksonville skyline.  This is our 49th year this month.  And everyone’s numb, and the members are like, ‘But why?’  And they said it wasn’t open for discussion.”

Dining room manager Liza Flowers, also a 35-year employee, knew the club members’ kids’ names and their favorite food and drinks. She served at countless weddings and anniversary parties.  

“At first, there were tears— the members’ tears, our tears— for the first two, three weeks, it was like losing our family member, you know? We’ve all been family for the past 35 years.”

University Club in Riverplace Tower will close Dec. 17.

But the University Club’s fate is not shared by other Jacksonville clubs. In fact, a competitor is seeing growth.

Gate Hospitality owns Epping Forest Yacht Club, Ponte Vedra Inn and Club, and the River Club downtown, atop the Wells Fargo building.

Joan Sykora, a Gate Hospitality vice president, says the River Club has grown membership by 200 people— more than 20 percent—in the last two years.

Her theory for why the University Club is closing?

“City clubs are typically used for business meetings, business folks. And sometimes it’s just too small of a town to have two full clubs,” she said.

The River Club has made a point of targeting new members under age 40, with changes large and small. Employee uniforms changed from a jacket and tie to what Sykora calls “bistro hip.” Vegan, vegetarian and gluten free menus are now offered in the dining room. And programming includes wine tastings, Monday “football lunches,” where former Jaguar players lead discussions of weekend games.

“It’s also an opportunity for them to network with some of the who’s who because the River Club, as you know, has a majority of our fine business leaders as members, and there’s a lot of good business deals that take place in that particular property,” Sykora said.

Another reason for Gate Hospitality’s success, she says, is owner Herb Peyton’s personal interest in the clubs. His family owns both the hospitality company and Gate Petroleum, and he oversees the clubs from Jacksonville.

Michelle Corum joined WJCT as "Morning Edition" host in 2012 and has worked in public broadcasting as an announcer and reporter for public radio stations in Lawrence, Kansas, and Interlochen, Michigan. She also manages WJCT's Radio Reading Service for sight-impaired listeners.
WJCT Business Analyst John Burr is a veteran journalist who has been been directing news coverage and reporting in Jacksonville since 1983. He is currently also a news analyst for WJCT, where he can be heard regularly on the "First Coast Connect" media roundtable.