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Council may push to privatize golf courses

A golfer chips onto a green at Enger Park Golf Course. (News Tribune / 2016 file)

The Duluth City Council will take up a resolution Monday night calling on city administration to "pursue a thoughtful plan to sell, lease or otherwise privatize all or part of Lester Park and Enger Park golf courses."

The proposed resolution, introduced by 5th District Councilor Jay Fosle, notes that both of the municipal golf courses lost money last year and are in need of extensive and expensive capital improvements.

Last year, the courses operated at a combined loss of $135,000.

To date, the Lester and Enger courses have amassed about $2.2 million in operating debt.

And the courses are in need of about $12.7 million of improvements to bring them up to snuff — $7.5 million at Enger and $5.2 million at Lester — according to a report Jim Filby Williams, Duluth's director of public administration, delivered to the council in December.

"The city really needs to get out of these types of businesses that are losing money. We're using taxpayer dollars on them, and that money should be going to the necessities, such as roads and infrastructure," Fosle said.

Fosle's resolution said privatizing the golf courses should allow the city "to preserve public golf for the long term, while also promoting other city objectives like housing and increasing the tax base."

But 1st District Councilor Gary Anderson, who represents Lester Park and other eastern neighborhoods, questioned the need for the resolution.

"I honestly believe city administration already is considering privatization, so I don't think there's really any merit to the resolution," he said.

Fosle said that while city administration has recognized the issue of continued losses at the golf courses for years, it has yet to offer a meaningful solution.

"They need a push, and they need the council behind them to back them. That's what's going on here. If we're not going to be behind them, why should they even go forward?" he said, pointing to Superior's Nemadji Golf Course as an example of successful privatization.

"We need to get behind them and get this ball rolling," Fosle said.

Anderson noted that funding for the golf courses already has been set aside for the coming season, providing time for a thoughtful plan to develop.

"This is a conversation that's been going on in the city for a long time, and it is coming to the forefront now. But I think the important action right now is the fact that the Duluth golfing community has formed this new organization — Friends of Duluth Golf — and that they are really stepping up and organizing to help support this really important public resource. So, I think the conversation is going to continue, and that it's a really important conversation," he said.