In the late 1930s, as the U.S. was emerging from the Great Depression, members of the Berkeley Country Club launched an effort to win back business and save their cash-strapped 160-acre hillside golf venture with stunning views of the San Francisco Bay.
In an ownership reorganization, the club was renamed Mira Vista Golf and Country Club (“Look at the View” in Spanish), as its been known since.
An Oct. 21, 1937, article from the defunct Berkeley Gazette said, “The greens will be put in first class condition, improvements will be made to the clubhouse and steps will be taken to make the social life of Berkeley center largely around the Berkeley Country Club.”
The club survived. But through the years its Berkeley origins were largely forgotten. For one thing, it sits in El Cerrito, above Arlington Avenue at the top of Cutting Boulevard.
This is poised to change.
The club will stay in El Cerrito. But in a zigzag of marketing strategies, the Mira Vista is returning to its original name, Berkeley Country Club, effective this summer.
And while it might be overreach for club owners to shoot for their 1937 goal of “making the social life of Berkeley center around the country club,” they do hope to attract new members to bolster the club’s fiscal health, said Richard Pettler, president of the Berkeley Country Club board.
“We have a tremendous history with the university and the city of Berkeley going back decades. But we didn’t have the name identification, it had gotten lost over the years,” Pettler said.
“What we’re trying to do, both in terms of the name change and other things, is to make this more of a destination golf club for people who basically live in the radius. The first thing you need to do is let people know you are here.”
Too much of a best-kept secret
Pettler describes the club as too much of a best-kept secret. He hopes the name recognition of Berkeley will pique the interest of golfers near and far.
“We need from a marketing point of view to appeal to a wider demographic. Marin County, San Francisco, the greater East Bay. That’s our market,” he said.
Established in 1920, Berkeley Country Club was conceived by a group of golfing buddies who huddled in Wheeler Hall on the UC Campus plotting a startup: acres of manicured greens and a clubhouse devoted to their sport. Financials were hammered out, designs argued, and a scouting mission ensued to secure land.
It just so happened that one of the group, Lester Hinks, president of the once-prominent Hinks & Son department store in downtown Berkeley, owned a large chunk of open land in the East Bay hills, part of the Rancho San Pablo land grant.
According to a history commissioned by club owners, Hinks essentially donated the land to the golfing group. About a year later, the Berkeley Country Club took root in what was then unincorporated Contra Costa County, a relatively easy country-road drive from Berkeley. The area was later annexed by the city of El Cerrito.
All of the 13 founders were from Berkeley, most affiliated with the university.
The original clubhouse is still in use, a stately Tudor-styled building designed by renowned Berkeley architect Walter Ratcliff Jr., one of the club founders, featuring bay views, a ballroom, restaurant and bar. It was renovated in 2002.
The club is owned by a group of its members and managed by a private golf management company.
Private golf clubs nationwide have struggled financially in recent years, and Berkeley/Mira Vista is no exception, Pettler said, though he described current finances as stable.
Without tennis courts, a swimming pool, or being part of a retirement community with built-in members, the Berkeley club needs to find new ways to reach golf devotees who can afford private membership, said Ron Svien, the club’s manager.
“In 2008 there was a big downturn in our economy and a lot of golf courses and clubs closed. It was not business as usual, even if you weren’t an upper echelon club,” Svien said. “There’s no doubt that most country clubs have to change the way they do business and we’re one of them.”
Owners turned to the past. “The club has a very storied history, we want to pay homage to that history,” Pettler said. The club is also returning to its original logos, among other steps to spotlight its roots.
“The city of Berkeley is made up of a lot of bright people who are relatively affluent, many of them are golfers. If they knew about the Berkeley County Club and knew of our history, they’d be interested in checking us out,” Pettler said.
The closest golf course to Berkeley is in Tilden Park, a public facility. Nearby private clubs include Claremont and Sequoyah country clubs in Oakland, and the Orinda Country Club.
Today, the Berkeley club has 406 members, 138 of whom are equity or owner members. When founded in 1920, membership was 380. It has two tiers of membership, social, at $125 a month, which allows nine rounds of golf a year, and full family, at $520 a month, with unlimited access.
Critics of private clubs say they’re elitist and expensive. Fans tout the ability to reserve times, avoid crowds, and access amenities for personal use such as dining services. “It’s a home away from home. There’s very much of a camaraderie, which is valuable,” Pettler said.
Public golf courses are fee-based rather than founded on membership, less expensive, and can have less play time flexibility.
Not everyone happy with name change
While 85% of the Berkeley Club’s equity membership voted for the name reversal, not everyone is happy with the development.
Some in El Cerrito were taken aback by the news. The City Council didn’t get any advance notice, and weren’t asked for input, said El Cerrito City Councilman Paul Fadelli.
“It hurt a little bit, symbolically,” Fadelli said. The city and many local organizations use the club for events.
Fadelli stressed, however, that El Cerrito has far more pressing business at hand. “It’s not the biggest issue in the world but we would have liked discussion about the changes.”
The change has nothing to do with El Cerrito, Svien and Pettler stressed.
“We’re proud to be in El Cerrito. That’s never going to change. El Cerrito is our home,” Pettler said, adding that the club remains committed to its tradition of serving as a local resource such as hosting school golfing events for free.
But the status quo isn’t enough, he said.
“We want to survive and thrive as a golf club and that was the basis of our decision.”