A new face at an old address

Many entrepreneurs would be wary of spending millions of dollars to revive a century-old city club burdened with dwindling membership and lacking a solid marketing plan for the better part of two decades.

But last January, William A. Hite III, president and CEO of Hite International, bought the post Civil War era Beckwith Mansion along Euclid Avenue for $1.5 million from Tom Roulston II. The University Club, which has called the mansion home since 1912, currently boasts 400 members — down substantially from Roulston’s glory days. Hite plans to revive the organization by tripling membership within a year, and will spend $3 million to make that happen.

When asked why he thinks the investment will work, Hite cites Cleveland’s renaissance during the 1990s with the success of Gateway, the Warehouse District and the Flats.

“All that renovation is making its way up Euclid Avenue,” he says. “Everywhere you look in Cleveland, there are new and wonderful stories about the renaissance of this city. Why not focus then on the renaissance of one of Cleveland’s oldest and most historically prominent facilities?”

The club’s decline was triggered during the 1970s, when scores of downtown enterprises fled to the suburbs, scattering Cleveland’s business players across the region. Hite says he’s got a plan to overcome that. His marketing approach depicts the University Club as a downtown “home away from home,” where members can entertain clients in a social environment or hold business meetings. He is also merging new ideas with club tradition by opening a small business center, offering temporary office space for members with full administrative and computer support.

Hite wants to rebuild with men and women in their 20s and 30s, many of whom he says won’t know the history behind the club. That’s a possible drawback, and one reason he is pushing the mansion’s proximity to the city’s downtown core, and amenities such as a health club, golf driving range and on-site personal trainer in his marketing materials as a way to capture the new generation.

But Hite readily admits sinking millions into an aging city landmark is a risky venture. But, he says, he was drawn to the civic and business opportunity of reinventing one of the oldest properties in Cleveland for a new generation.

“Cleveland is no longer a new city,” Hite says. “It is a city some people think has been there, done that and gone, when in fact it is recycling. Cities go through constant rebirths and reidentify themselves in a new time and new place.” How to reach: The University Club, www.universityclubcle.com

Jim Vickers ([email protected]) is an associate editor at SBN.