River Bend owner, Ralph Brendle, has seen business at his hunting resort decline in direct correlation with China’s ascendancy as a textile supplier to the U.S. South Carolina, along with neighboring Southern states, has been hemorrhaging textile jobs since China joined the World Trade Organization in 2001, when Beijing unleashed a fury of trade practices that has cost America more than 300,000 jobs.
In its heyday, Mr. Brendle’s River Bend Sportsman’s Resort stood as a top destination for executive retreats and team-building outings for South Carolina textile makers such as Milliken, Greenwood Mills, Avondale Mills and Wellman. Now, the dollars and jobs have taken a one-way trip to the Far East.
For Mr. Brendle, the only alternative to long-term survival is to take River Bend private. Walk-in shooters will unfortunately need to locate a replacement. It’s not that Mr. Brendle suffers from an incorrigible case of elitism. But his sporting clays, skeet, tower shoots and upland hunts are difficult to sustain from the income eked out on a daily turn.
Whether or not River Bend succeeds as a private club remains to be seen as 2010 unfolds. The bigger question, however, is whether or not Mr. Brendle’s decision to privatize River Bend signals a trend as the U.S. unemployment rate hovers at around 10 percent for anxious operators such as Mr. Brendle.
We recently visited River Bend and it certainly bears all the trappings of a preferred destination. The lofty ceiling in the cozy log lodge is fitted with a fireplace, comfortable furniture, two dining rooms, steam rooms, bar and pro shop.
There are two sporting clays courses with 24 stations, a skeet field, five stand, wobble trap along with a pistol and rifle range. River Bend is also home to one of the best-known sporting clays coaches, Dan Schindler – an NSCA Level III instructor and owner of the Paragon School of Sporting.
The guest cottage where we stayed housed four bedrooms with private baths around a lodge area that had its own fireplace and stocked bar, plus an additional four bedrooms downstairs.
Our meals were excellent, capturing the essence of low-country Southern cooking and the intimacy of Southern hospitality.
Yet outside the gates of River Bend, circumstances appear far less appealing, as described by Congressman Walter B. Jones when he testified on March 24, 2009, before the U.S.-China Economic and Security Review Commission during the hearing, “China’s Industrial Policy and its Impact on U.S. Companies, Workers, and the American Economy.”
According to Congressman Jones’ testimony, in 2001, the year prior to China’s accession to the WTO, China exported 2.2 billion square meters (SME) of textile and apparel products to the United States and held a 6.7 percent U.S. import market share. By 2008, China’s textile and apparel exports to the United States had grown by more than 800 percent – jumping by 18.4 billion SME to 20.6 billion SME at a value of $32.7 billion. During the same period, the U.S. lost 600,100 textile and apparel industry manufacturing jobs, including 106,200 in North Carolina.
Mr. Brendle, a former textile executive himself, vividly recalls the direct hit on River Bend…
“In 2001, textiles disappeared almost overnight,” he said. About 80 percent of our business was textile related and we had to find to new clients.”
By 2006, his efforts to recover from China’s direct hit gave hope that River Bend could flourish under his original business model that rewarded private members with special perks and every-day shooters with access to his resort. With creative financing feeding the real-estate frenzy, he had sold banking and construction corporate memberships that gave hope he would recover from the Chinese.
“We thought if we made River Bend economically diverse, that would be our security,” he explained. “But the economy has shown that hasn’t happened. So for the long-term continuance of River Bend, we needed to come up with something new, so now I’m taking River Bend totally private with a fixed number of memberships.”
Mr. Brendle’s new push quietly started in mid-May with his own confidential list. He is about to cast a wider net that will ultimately attract a maximum of 200 corporate and individual members to River Bend.
In effect, he is selling a certificate of membership. The certificate covers the $15,000 initiation fee. After that, a monthly dues of $500 entitles members to full access of the facilities as well as guests and family. Membership prices for all River Bend’s activities will be about two-thirds of what he now charges the public.
On June 1st, Mr. Brendle opened an escrow account for prospective members. He requires a deposit of $2,500 that will go into that account. He gave himself a deadline of November 1st to sell a minimum of 100 memberships, the turning point for taking River Bend private.
So what are those members buying into?
A hunting resort on 550 acres, with river frontage, that features a 9,000-square-foot lodge. There is also the 4,500-square-foot River Bend cottage.
Atop a hill the original lodge, built in 1985, has been converted into a 2,000-square-foot conference center. Further up the hill sit the Shotgun Cabins, comprised of six individual rooms.
River Bend is one of only three resorts in South Carolina licensed for upland duck hunting. There are flight-raised mallards raised in the wild but fed on-site every day. Mr. Brendle manages 40 acres of dead, standing timber populated by blinds where hunts are conducted replete with guides and dogs. And there are no bag limits. Other hunting on the property includes wild turkey and deer.
Clays shooters will be happy to know that sporting clays instructor Dan Schindler plans on staying with River Bend after it goes private – conducting lessons on either the easier member course or the more challenging championship course.
Right now, the only alternatives in the region are the small, private clubs started by close-knit groups of hunters. Locally, Mr. Brendle’s new program offers a private alternative for hunters and clays shooters who lack access to a large swath of property. Nationally, River Bend could serve as a litmus test for other destinations facing a similar fate.
For more information about becoming a River Bend member, Mr. Brendle can be reached at (864) 592-1348 or you can visit the River Bend web site at http://www.rvrbend.com.