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GROTON – It was only bad luck that Groton Country Club Manager Robert Whalen took over the sluggish enterprise just as the economy was slowing down and a wary public began to hold off on spending.

“The job has been very challenging, but it’s pretty much what I was expecting,” said Whalen, who took over as manager earlier this year. “I was told it was a troubled operation that needed some management attention and we have made great progress since I took over.

“I had to put in place a lot of business systems and accounting system information to manage and refine a budget this year,” said Whalen. “I was given a budget when I came aboard and that budget was one that recognized the economic difficulties everyone was experiencing. That made it a little more difficult than in years past. Everybody was quite concerned about the economy through the winter and the rest of the year and the budget reflected that reality. We expected less business than in years past, but managed a reduction in expenses and the result was a break even year.”

Luckily for Whalen, however, a good working relationship with town officials has made his efforts to get the country club up to snuff much easier.

“Working with town officials has been nothing less than superlative,” said Whalen. “They’ve been supportive, understanding; their decisions responsive, and they have always been available. You can’t ask for anything more than that. I’ve been delighted with the way things have worked out. Working with the Country Club Authority, the Board of Selectmen, Town Manager Mark Haddad, and Christine Collins the town treasurer has been a pleasure. I can’t say enough good things about them. I needed some help and direction when I was first getting on board here and every time I called for support and insights both from the Board of Selectmen and town officials, they have been very responsive and helpful. Everyone has shared the same goal that to the point where it’s possible, the Country Club be self-sustaining.”

A resident of Lynnfield, Whalen had himself been a candidate for the town manager position before losing out to Haddad. His performance during the search process impressed selectmen and his background in business later inspired Haddad to hire him as the new manager of the Groton Country Club, a town owned enterprise.

“My first goal was to meet the expectations of the authority and the rest of the town and to make sure the country club ran this year at a break-even level with the principal goal being that it eventually becomes profitable,” said Whalen of his charge. “I was hired in mid-March and for all intents and purposes, the season began on April 1, as soon as the weather clears. It took some effort by the building and grounds department to get the golf course open this spring particularly after the extensive damage caused by last year’s ice storm.

“One goal I had for this year was to meet our budget,” Whalen said. “But I have to add a couple disclaimers and caveats to that. We’re very weather dependent here at the Country Club. For example, our swimming pool facility was recently closed for the year so now we’re completely dependent for cash flow on our golf operations and that’s a function of the weather. If the weather holds, perhaps into December, people will continue to come out and play. I encourage them to do so because if that happens, then we have a good opportunity to accomplish our goals. Actually, we’ve done reasonably well when you consider the economic conditions and the terrible weather we had in June when it rained almost every day. But notwithstanding that, we recovered and have been back on track.”

With limited resources, Whalen has managed to get some chores done over the past few months including necessary maintenance.

“The entire facility has been in disrepair for some time so we have made some improvements over the last year,” said Whalen. “The Mulligan snack bar has been completely refurbished with paint and the roof has been replaced. We made some drainage improvements around the facility as well and Lovers Lane is being repaved all the way up to the tennis courts. Any shortcomings this year are really due to there being no capital budget to speak of. Because of that we’re not really able to do any substantive improvements to the facility besides basic maintenance.

“We are constantly improving the golf course though and I give major kudos to the grounds staff for that,” he said. “Anyone who comes out here finds it in absolutely perfect condition. Anybody interested in playing a nice municipal golf course should take advantage of it. The problem is that some people don’t realize that it’s open to the public.”

That said, Whalen expressed satisfaction at the number of people in town who have availed themselves of services offered by the country club.

“I think membership participation has been terrific given the circumstances of weather and the economy,” said Whalen. “Golf though has done very well for us, use of the pool has exceeded our expectations, and camp was a huge success this year. But a lot of people this year held on to their dollars to the last moment and made their spending decisions accordingly. Eventually people signed up their children for summer camp and the junior golf program. Both of those exceeded our expectations but did so very late. Pool memberships were a little slow for some reason.

“But this season was a challenge,” admitted Whalen. “And I expect next season to be the same. But advance planning throughout the winter to reach out to people and expand membership and generate more revenue to help cover costs such as utilities should alleviate some of those concerns.

“I hope to take the next several months to think about product improvement and enhancement on the pool and the golf course and in expanding some of the programs we offer,” Whalen said. “We want to offer even better products and services next year so we can prosper.”

Up until the recent slow down in the economy, plans had been moving forward to locate a new community center on the country club grounds but the club manager said that the effort has not been halted, only slowed.

At the moment, the country club employs four full time employees including a golf pro and Whalen himself and up to 50 part time or seasonal employees at different times of the year.

“We want to make sure people understand that this is a resource for the town and that everyone here is working to make it as attractive as possible,” said Whalen. “I think we’ve had a reasonably good season given all of the circumstances and look forward to having a better season next year.”