Golf will remain at Lester Park

Golf won't be leaving Duluth's Lester Park anytime soon. Duluth Mayor Don Ness said his administration has ruled out the idea of selling the Lester Park Golf Course outright and turning it into a housing development. He said the city may still en...

Lester Park Golf Course
Adam Hughley tees off at Lester Park Golf Course on Sunday. City administration has dropped the idea of selling the entire course to make way for housing, but is still considering selling part of it. (Steve Kuchera /

Golf won’t be leaving Duluth’s Lester Park anytime soon.
Duluth Mayor Don Ness said his administration has ruled out the idea of selling the Lester Park Golf Course outright and turning it into a housing development. He said the city may still entertain proposals to add housing to the 200-acre property, but golf will remain a part of the mix.
That doesn’t mean the money-losing course will escape change, however. Ness said the city still will consider the possibility of downscaling the operation from its current 27-hole configuration to perhaps 18 holes in order to accommodate new housing.
The Lester Park Golf Course finished its previous season nearly $243,000 in the red.
Figures for the latest season are not yet available.
Earlier this summer, the city solicited plans, and it has received three proposals to redevelop at least some of the troubled course.
“We’re looking at those proposals to see what may be possible,” said David Montgomery, Duluth’s chief administrative officer.
He said that developing the whole property would likely be prohibitively expensive. Montgomery explained that delivering water to the upper reaches of the course would require additional lift stations and the development of a new water storage structure.
“I’m glad that at least the nuclear option is off the table,” said Steve Lucia as he golfed at Lester Park on Sunday afternoon.
Lucia said he could live with an 18-hole course and suggested the Lake 9 section of the operation might be an attractive location for developers. He also said he would be willing to pay higher greens fees and a larger season pass charge to keep the course open.
But Lucia also took issue with what he views as a double standard. He noted that the city has provided ongoing financial support to the Spirit Mountain Recreation Area and the Great Lakes Aquarium, yet it appears unwilling to extend similar support for public golf operations.
“When you have those kinds of continued subsidies elsewhere, it seems unfair to pull the pin on this course in particular,” he said. “I think it’s offensive to our local golfing community.”
Montgomery said no decisions have yet been made regarding the future of the Lester Park Golf Course, and even if some on-site housing development eventually does occur there, it will require extensive review.
“I think it’s safe to say you will see golf as it is today at Lester Park next year. Beyond that, we’ll have to see what the future looks like,” Montgomery said.
In the coming weeks, city staff also will evaluate four proposals received from groups interested in managing Duluth’s two public golf courses, at Lester and Enger parks.
While the Lester Park Golf Course consistently has lost money in recent years, the Enger Park course generally has operated at a modest profit or at least close to the break-even point. Last year was an exception, with the Enger Park course ending up with about a $67,000 loss.
“Of course, we need to listen to the community when we’re dealing with an issue of this scale and magnitude,” Montgomery said. “But I think the local golfing community needs to acknowledge that the financial performance of the Lester Park Golf Course has been significantly worse than at Enger.”
“That has to be taken into account, because the city can’t afford to continue to lose the amount of money it has at the Lester Park course,” he said.
The declining popularity of golf nationwide has impacted both of the city’s public courses, said Jim Filby Williams, Duluth’s director of public administration. He noted that from 2006-13 the number of rounds played at Duluth’s two public golf courses slipped more than 20 percent, from 81,000 to 63,000.  
“I’m in the real-estate business, so I’m all for housing, but I strongly feel there’s a need for two public golf courses in a town of this size,” said Jon Nelson, as he played a round at Lester Park on Sunday afternoon.
“I love this course, with that view of the lake and the scenery,” he said.
The Lester Park course derives no revenue from sales of alcoholic drinks because the city charter forbids such sales in Duluth’s Lakeside and Lester Park neighborhoods. But Montgomery said some portions of the course property lie outside the neighborhood boundaries. He said the city could explore moving the clubhouse to one of those areas to allow for sales alcohol.
“Alcohol is typically a significant revenue component for any golf course operation,” he noted.  
As he golfed at Lester Park on Sunday, Tom Mattei said he hopes the city continues to explore other alternatives to selling off the property piecemeal.
“I think it would be a travesty to sell a beautiful piece of public property like this,” he said. “Once it’s gone, you can’t ever get it back.”

Lester Park Golf Course
A golfer walks along a fairway at Lester Park Golf Course on Sunday. (Steve Kuchera /

Peter Passi covers city government for the Duluth News Tribune. He joined the paper in April 2000, initially as a business reporter but has worked a number of beats through the years.
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