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Future of Duluth's municipal golf courses could be on the line

A golfer chooses clubs on the driving range at the Lester Park Golf Course in Duluth in September 2014. (file / News Tribune)

A citizens' advisory committee is wrapping up a year of study, looking into the future of Duluth's public golf courses, and the group is expected to share its findings with the Duluth City Council on Monday, Dec. 17.

The city of Duluth has been wrestling with what to do about continued financial losses associated with the operation of the Lester Park and Enger Park golf courses, which were projected to lose more than $100,000 combined this year, adding to about $2.2 million in previously accumulated debt.

Chris Stevens, a member of Friends of Duluth Public Golf, a local golfing advocacy group, is among the people serving on the advisory committee, and he said: "I've been trying to steer our group to have honest discussions about our courses and trying to come up with some viable solutions for the city to adopt to support public golf in our city."

Jim Filby Williams, director of public administration for the city of Duluth, said committee members have done a thorough job of gathering information.

"That group has been meeting every other week for the past year and has either undertaken or commissioned and received a number of different pieces of research. And one of those pieces of research was to do some focus group and survey work to learn what our citizens think and feel about the future of Duluth golf," he said.

Another member of the advisory committee, City Councilor Gary Anderson, who represents Duluth's 1st District, which is home to the Lester Park Golf Course, said: "It's been a lot of meetings and a lot of effort because it's an issue that's important to a lot of our citizens."

In addition to conducting a random phone survey, Filby Williams said the advisory committee dug deeper.

"That group, inclusive of Friends of Duluth Public Golf, said: No. 1, we need to do a follow-up survey with golfers to learn more about some of the questions and issues that were apparent in the first survey. So we did that, and then second, we dedicated one of these focus groups just to our golfers and another focus group to non-golfers. And all of that research material — both public opinion and the other research material — will be presented to Council," he said.

The committee is expected to share its findings in December, but Filby Williams said the group will circle back and provide some some specific recommendations to the City Council and the Duluth Parks Commission after the holidays.

Stevens said he doesn't know exactly what to expect.

"My feelings are mixed at this point. Obviously, the city has its ideas about what golf should be in Duluth, and golfers have their ideas, and not all those ideas align. I think that from the start I've been a realist in trying to figure out what is best for our city," he said.

Stevens said the courses have made some significant financial progress but noted it's tough to break even when they are playable for only about six months a year, at best.

Stevens noted that the city of Duluth expects its courses to be self-sufficient, and whenever a course runs a deficit, it is treated as accrued debt. But he questioned why golf is held to that high standard, when other types of recreational activities are subsidized.

"I think the citizens of Duluth and the City Council ultimately need to decide how that should play out," Stevens said.

He acknowledged there are only a finite number of dollars available, but Stevens suggested a case could be made for the city's public golf courses to receive at least some support in the way of a tourism tax allocation. At present, neither course receives any such aid.

"That's sort of disappointing, because the citizens of Duluth eat at restaurants and consume beverages, as well," he said. "So that's a little bit of a challenge from my perspective. What is the city doing to to give back to its citizens?"

Stevens said Duluth's two public courses host about 72,000 rounds of golf annually.

Filby Williams said the advisory group continues to explore multiple scenarios, including a potential redevelopment of the Lester Park Golf Course.

"The group developed a number of different golf business and facility options, which we then had our consultant subject to financial modeling. So we have a sense of how these different paths forward are expected to perform financially," he said.

Anderson said the city will need to determine what level of support it is willing to offer its public golf courses on an ongoing basis.

"It's a park. It's a way of getting people outside into our green space, and if we don't consider that then we're not really looking at the whole picture," he said.

"We give our tax dollars to support all of our parks. We subsidize our green space all over the city. The question is: To what degree do we do that here? There's no right or wrong way to look at this. There's just a tremendous amount of gray area," Anderson said.

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