Seven months ago, The Lakeland Country Club existed on paper only, a concept with a new logo.

Today, the members-only club that is replacing the old Lakeland Yacht Club at the north end of Cleveland Heights Boulevard has walls and a roof, and a completion date: Dec. 31.

Miller Construction has been moving right along, allowing The Lakeland Country Club to plan its opening on Feb. 1, 2019. Simultaneously, the club’s board of directors has been meeting to hire a general manager and plan for the excitement that comes with opening a new club that likely will be the go-to place for members.

Take a look at membership alone. The former Yacht Club closed with about 150 members. The Country Club already has about 170 members.

If you are considering becoming a member, join now: One day after opening will be too late.

“We are capping membership on opening day,” said Lakeland lawyer Ron Clark, co-chairman of the board of directors along with Dean Boring. Membership will be closed at that point, he said, and the Country Club will start a waiting list.

“The board will take a look at that every so often,” Clark said. “But with the excitement, the economics work.”

So far, members have booked two large weddings and a party in March, Clark said. “It’s pretty unbelievable.”

Board secretary Kim Ruthven said knowing those parties are on the books adds an extra level of pressure to make sure everything is done on time. But it’s good pressure, she says.

“We want to get back in the building,” she said. “We  want to do that for our members, first and foremost.”

Bert Morales
COO & General Manager
The Lakeland Country Club

The March events give the Country Club’s new general manager, who was hired in June, only one month to get everything in order. But Bert Morales appears to be up to the task.

After a nationwide search that resulted in 70 to 80 applicants for the GM’s job, Morales made it to the final three, Clark said. The board did extensive interviews and testing before deciding Morales “was the guy.”

Morales was the food and beverage director at a waterside restaurant and former general manager at two clubs, all in Georgia. He also was managing partner at a Carrabba’s restaurant.

“He’s just a big-time food and service guy,” Clark said. “He’s opened up several restaurants. He’s just perfect for what we’re doing. He’s the guy.”

Ruthven said hiring Morales has created a lot of excitement by itself. “He does have the club experience, but prior to that he owned and managed restaurants, and he built them from the ground up. We need that. We are promising that to our members. Not only is it going to be a new building, but a new club and a new level of service, food, and member experience. He’s going to do that for us.”

Morales ended up managing clubs because of the level of service he provided at his restaurants, Ruthven said. A club manager who frequented his restaurant was so impressed, he hired him.

“He’s really into having creative, fun events,” Ruthven said. “He wants this club to be hopping. That’s why people join a club, to be lively and have music. He has a ton of energy. That’s really important for us at this point. He will implement the vision that the board has and the members want.”

Morales, who hails from West Palm Beach, has already hired a comptroller, Clark said. His next hires will be an executive chef and a banquet coordinator.

The plan for The Lakeland Country Club was unveiled to a group of businessmen and women in downtown Lakeland last November. Lkldr Creative developed the Country Club’s new logo, which includes an L for Lakeland; 1924 (the year the Yacht Club was founded); and a lion, which stands for strength and loyalty.

The Country Club’s board meets weekly, and on July 11 decided to send letters to members outlining 

the progress made and the future that lies ahead.

Ruthven said she’s not worried about anything, but there’s “just so much to do. “We want to make sure it’s right for the members,” she said, adding that the amount of time and energy the dozen board members have put into the project is staggering.

“But it will be worth it the day we open the door and have our first dinner,” she said.

One of the fun parts has been picking out furniture and fixtures, Ruthven said. She and other committee members have been working with a design firm from Tampa.

“We have picked out some of the coolest, prettiest light fixtures,” she said. On Wednesday, they finalized fabric and furniture choices.

“It’s important to keep the historic side,” she said. “We are reusing a lot of the furniture –– the chests and armoires –– to keep that architecture and feel of the old club. But we’re perking it up and making it relevant. The swanky bar, you’re going to be like … ‘Yea, that’s where I’m hanging out.’”

Combining the old and new is important to Ruthven.

“It will be relevant to a new generation, as well as the existing generation,” she said. “You have all the old parts that pull at your heartstrings, and then you see all the new amenities. There is no doubt we made the right decision.”