Developer Tom Sunnarborg has been making the rounds in Duluth this week to share his vision for the future of the Lester Park Golf Course - a future that could include a hotel, a housing development and a downsized private golf course, still accessible to the general public.
On Monday night he met with Friends of Duluth Public Golf, a group of local advocates who have been working to preserve Duluth’s two municipal golf courses - Lester and Enger Park - in spite of mounting financial losses.
Sunnarborg now resides in central Florida, but he grew up in Duluth, regularly playing golf at both Lester and Enger with his father. Sunnarborg said he cares deeply about the future of the courses.
“Some of my fondest memories are of playing golf at Enger and Lester,” he said, adding that he wants to ensure the courses endure.
But it’s unclear if Duluth can continue to sustain two municipal golf courses.
The city’s golf fund has racked up about $2.3 million in debt. Last year was one of the stronger years in recent history for the golf courses, but they still lost a combined $76,645.
A golf study group has been digging into the situation and is expected to present its findings to the Duluth City Council in the next month or so.
“We would very much like to be able to present the committee’s findings in February, and we’re going to work hard to do that, but we also want to honor the process,” said Jim Filby Williams, the city’s director of public administration, explaining that no hard and fast date has been set for the report.
Chris Stevens, president of Friends of Duluth Public Golf, said he appreciated Sunnarborg’s willingness to share his proposal with the group Monday night.
Although he would prefer for Lester to remain a municipal golf course, Stevens said it’s in everyone’s interest “to make sure our citizens and our golfers are informed about all options.”
“We’ve heard this is one of the options out there. We’ll be presenting options, as well,” he said.
If the city doesn’t change course, Sunnarborg predicts Lester’s days are probably numbered.
“At some point, taxpayers are probably going to lose patience,” he said.
Meanwhile, Sunnarborg said the courses have suffered from neglect.
“The scariest thing is the deferred maintenance. We’re talking millions of dollars in deferred maintenance,” he said.
If the courses are allowed to continue to deteriorate, Sunnarborg said the outlook appears bleak. As equipment needs to be replaced or irrigation systems need work, the city will be faced with the need for continued investments, adding to the existing debt.
“In order to put municipal golf on a path toward financial stability, the fundamentals need to change, and the chance of that happening with the current structure is unlikely,” Sunnarborg said.
He described the prospect of “a financial spiral.”
“The city probably would not be inclined to put more money into a golf product that’s being degraded, and the clientele won’t want to pay more for an inferior product,” Sunnarborg said.
He proposes an alternative.
Sunnarborg seeks to purchase the 260-acre Lester Park Golf Course and downsize it from 27 to 18 holes, converting the back nine holes into a hotel and housing development.
The back nine holes offer outstanding views of Lake Superior, and Sunnarborg envisions building about a 120-room hotel to serve as the centerpiece of the development. He pictures something evocative of a ski village/resort, such as Vail or Breckenridge. The chalet-style hotel would offer community amenities, including a top-tier restaurant, a pool, a sauna and a conference center.
Sunnarborg also proposes to construct a variety of housing on the site, including multi-family apartment buildings or condos, townhouses and single-family homes.
The development would be completed in phases and could provide up to 400 new units of housing when completed.
He said the development would have a traditional neighborhood feel, featuring streetfront porches and garages around back with alleyway access.
Sunnarborg has an extensive development background. He was part of a Disney Co. Imagineer team that helped develop Celebration, Fla., a community he still calls home. He also worked in development leadership roles for the Mosaic Co., Intrawest and Starwood Hotels and Resorts
If his bid proves successful, Sunnarborg would continue to operate the front nine holes and the challenging Lake 9. The course would be privately owned, but Sunnarborg said the public would continue to have access to it.
Sunnarborg said he intends to improve the course, with the goal of making it second only to Northland Country Club in quality. He acknowledged higher fees than those currently charged would be required to support the operation.
Stevens said higher fees would exclude more people from the sport.
“Golf is not necessarily an inexpensive sport to begin with, so we’re trying to reduce those barriers for folks. That’s what public golf is all about. But ultimately this is a decision the city is going to have to wrestle with: What is the value of these public courses to our city?” Stevens asked.
Sunnarborg has been working for more than a year to put together a plan for Lester Park under the terms of an exclusive non-binding memo of understanding stating that for the duration of the agreement the city will not solicit or accept any development offers from other parties.
That agreement sunsets by the end of March, and Sunnarborg said he still has much to do to put together the project.
“Rumor has it that it’s a done deal, but it’s nowhere close to that,” he said.
Sunnarborg notes that Minnesota state code spells out what it takes for the city of Duluth to dispose of public park land. Such a transaction can only be approved by a four-fifths majority vote of the Duluth City Council. As the council is composed of nine members, this means that eight of nine councilors would need to sign off on any sale of the Lester Park Golf Course.
Sunnarborg acknowledged that’s a high bar to clear, and he will need to make a persuasive case to put together a successful deal.
The project would require a zoning change and significant utility improvements, as well.
If his proposal curries sufficient favor, Sunnarborg said he and his partners would be prepared to purchase the golf course property straight up for its appraised value. Sunnarborg said he does not intend to ask for tax-increment financing or any other public subsidy.
“I want to pay a fair price,” he said.
Proceeds from sale of Lester could be plowed back into Enger to make needed improvements there, and Sunnarborg noted his project would put 260 acres of land on the city tax rolls.