Duluth residents are continuing to fight the proposed sale and redevelopment of one of the city’s two golf courses, while the Parks and Recreation Commission wants a say in any prospective sale of city green space. A developer has indicated interest in building housing on a piece of the property—taking the Lester Park Golf Course from 27 to 18 holes—and maintaining the remaining course.
Members of the Duluth (Minn.) Parks and Recreation Commission indicated on March 13 that they have no inclination to shy away from what’s bound to be a controversial issue—whether the city should consider the possibility of selling and/or downsizing its Lester Park Golf Course, the Duluth News Tribune reported.
Acknowledging that the decision would be a heavy burden, Jim Filby Williams, Duluth’s Director of Public Administration, said he didn’t wish to place the task on commissioners’ shoulders without consulting them first, according to the News Tribune’s report. Commissioners responded with resounding accord that they ought to weigh in on any prospective sale of city green space.
The Park Commission reviewed and discussed the findings of the Duluth Golf Citizen Advisory Committee March 13, and also heard from members of the public who showed up to share their views about the future of the city’s two public golf courses at Lester and Enger parks, the News Tribune reported. The eight citizens who participated in a public comment period all came out against any prospective sale of Lester Park Golf Course.
Developer Tom Sunnarborg has proposed to purchase the course and use the back nine holes—about 75 acres—to put up a hotel and housing development, the News Tribune reported. He proposes to operate the remaining 18 holes as a private golf course that would remain accessible to the general public. C&RB reported on his plans in January.
If such a deal is approved, the city, in turn, would use any proceeds from the sale to help fund needed improvements at Enger Park Golf Course—notably, a new clubhouse and irrigation system, according to the News Tribune report.
Rich Staffon, President of the Duluth chapter of the Izaak Walton League, said his organization is dedicated to “defending our soil, air, woods, waters and wildlife.”
“A big part of that is protecting and safeguarding our public lands and our green space,” Staffon said.
While Duluth’s public golf courses have continued to operate at a loss, racking up $2.4 million in debt to date, Staffon said they remain a significant recreational resource, the News Tribune reported.
“Keeping this area undeveloped also helps to protect the watershed and the water quality of the Lester River,” he told members of the Duluth City Council. “We’ve recently learned this lesson from problems that developed on Amity Creek, which is a major tributary to the Lester River, because of development. Those soils in that area are very sensitive.
“Once this tract of public green space is gone, it’s gone for good,” Staffon continued. “We encourage the city to make a really careful investigation before considering a sale to a private developer. This is the people’s land. You are the trustees of that land, and we’re looking to you to treat that land with care and really think hard about how it should be used.”
Tim McEvoy, a local golfer, was also at the meeting, the News Tribune reported. “I don’t understand how a city sells its parkland,” he told the council, and suggested that the city look at raising its golfing fees instead to make the courses self-sustaining.
Filby Williams, however, noted that a survey of local golfers was not encouraging on that front, the News Tribune reported.
“I personally don’t think we should invest too much in those findings,” he said. “But for what it’s worth, they expressed a fairly strong feeling that folks are not willing to pay significantly more.”
Tim Lee—a member of the Golf Citizen Advisory and vice president of Friends of Duluth Golf—agreed that the survey results indicated as much, the News Tribune reported. But he added: “This runs contrary to my personal experience … and I think it runs contrary to most of the public comments I was able to listen to [at the City Council meeting].”
Dennis Isernhagen, a parks commissioner and member of the golf advisory committee, told councilors that in his opinion, the city had taken an odd approach to running its public golf program, and one that seemed to set it up for failure, the News Tribune reported.
“The city has insisted that the golf courses need to operate as a private business [and] need to carry their own weight,” Isernhagen said. “I support this position—however, if you’re going to operate as a business, then you need to function as a business.
“For the past several years, the city administration has put forth an operating budget that is losing money,” he continued. “No successful business would develop a budget that is going to lose money. Simply increasing the fees would have had a very positive impact on the budget.”
The city also had done little to market its courses, Isernhagen added.
Another comment came from Dan Baumgartner, who said, “I do not feel the city made a good-faith effort to make the courses successful.”
Filby Williams suggested that the municipal courses’ financial problems arose primarily from an overbuilt golf landscape, with 72 new golf holes coming online within a 30-mile area from 1984 to 2003, not to mention Duluth adding 18 holes to its own inventory in 1989, according to the News Tribune’s report.
City administration will use the advisory committee’s findings as a basis for developing a recommendation, the News Tribune reported. That recommendation could be made in conjunction with Friends of Duluth Golf members, if city staff and golfing advocates can agree.
If not, Filby Williams said the Parks Commission and the City Council may need to choose from competing plans, the News Tribune reported. Given their differences, he said that scenario is a very real possibility.
“Forcing consensus where it may not be could lead to some unintended negative consequences. So we foresaw this possibility from the beginning,” he said.
Filby Williams said he aims to put the question to the Parks Commission and the City Council in the next two to three months, the News Tribune reported.