After more than a year of deliberation, a citizen advisory committee has come to agree on a difficult point for local golfers to acknowledge: Duluth may have too much in the way of public golf offerings.

The nine-member committee presented its findings to the Duluth City Council Monday night, working to put a trying situation in context.

Tough times

Duluth boasts two municipal golf courses at Lester and Enger Park, each offering guests up to 27 holes of play.

In recent years, however, Duluth's public courses have drawn significantly fewer golfers, recording a combined 60,988 rounds of play in 2018. That's 44 percent less activity than the 108,000 rounds logged at Lester Park and Enger Park in 2000.

The situation in Duluth is far from unique. The National Golf Foundation reported the number of golf rounds played in the U.S.has slipped 23 percent since 2006.

To adjust to weaker demand, more than 150 golf courses across the nation have closed each year for several years running, and by most every indication, the shrinkage is apt to continue.

As golfing dwindles in popularity, competition for business has intensified.

Duluth's own two municipal golf courses each expanded from 18 to 27 holes in 1989.

Meanwhile, other public golf courses located within 30 miles of the city continued to grow and sprout up, adding another 72 holes to the area's inventory.

Operating under the combined name of Duluth Golf, the Enger and Lester Park courses have continued to rack up debt. Although they improved their financial performance last year, they still finished with a combined loss of more than $76,000. After running back-to-back deficits for several years running, Duluth Golf now has amassed more than $2.4 million in debt to the city.

Filby Williams told city councilors Monday the committee found that financial realities dictate that “at minimum a significant portion of the debts to the general fund may have to be forgiven formally or in effect.”

The citizen committee maintains that despite its recent struggles, golf remains “an integral part of the city’s parks and recreation program,” with more than 3,000 people playing Duluth’s public courses in 2018 for an average of 17 rounds per person.

“For many of these citizens, Duluth Golf is essential to personal health and well-being - a vital means to stay active, connect with others and enjoy the natural world,” Filby Williams said.

Difficult decisions

The participants in the process substantially agreed with the findings of the report presented to city councilors Monday, said Chris Stevens, a member of the citizens' committee who also serves as president of a public golf advocacy group called Friends of Duluth Golf.

But while group members agree on a certain set of facts, Stevens said difference of opinion on the city's best course of action continue to persist, as reflected in the careful wording of the report

"The language was crafted very deliberately and collaboratively," said Jim Filby Williams, Duluth's director of public Administration.

The committee report stops short of calling for any specific course of action but treads close to the line, noting: "Some downsizing of Duluth Golf is likely to be necessary for Duluth Golf to operate on a financially sustainable basis."

Filby Williams said the wording was "a good example of the extent and limits of this study process."

"It has provided a pool of data and facts and analysis that we can all agree is substantially sound and accurate and then sets up this very important next stage of the discussion about specific solutions. There's a diversity of opinion about how, consistent with these facts, we ought to proceed," he said.

Stevens acknowledged differing viewpoints, with city staff adopting a more risk-averse stance and Friends of Duluth Golf offering a more optimistic outlook.

"I think the truth will probably be somewhere in the middle of each of our proposals," he said, stressing the need to “right-size” the golf courses rather than presumptively downsizing them. 

Erik Torch, president of the Duluth Parks and Recreation Commission, served on the citizens advisory committee and commented: "People are very passionate about how public spaces how park spaces in Duluth get used," calling that "a good thing."

Torch praised city staff and golf advocates for clearly sharing their perspectives. "They've both had a commitment to really work together and be honest and frank," he said.

Yet Stevens referred to the findings report as just a start.

"We still have a lot of work ahead of us, but this is a basis for us to try to come to some conclusions," he said.

Needed work

Stevens said that while disagreements persist in some areas, there was a mutual recognition that capital improvements at the golf courses are "desperately needed."

At a minimum, a consultant estimated that Enger Park and Lester Park will require capital investments of $3.7 and $3.4 million, respectively. Among the big-ticket costs are new clubhouses and irrigation infrastructure for the courses.

Particularly in light of the golf courses' financial duress, paying for those needed improvements will pose a challenge.

One option laid out in the report involves the sale of public golf property.

Developer Tom Sunnarborg has entered into an agreement with the city that grants him the exclusive right through the end of the year to negotiate with the city a purchase of the 269-acre Lester Park Golf Course. But any prospective deal would require approval by eight of the Duluth City Council's nine sitting members.

Sunnarborg has expressed interest in downsizing the Lester Park Golf Course to 18 holes and redeveloping part of the property for a hotel and housing development. He said he would then operate Lester as a private golf course accessible to members of the general public.

The report also indicated there could be an opportunity to redevelop some of the property that's now home to a clubhouse and driving range at Enger Park for multi-family housing. This, too, would require City Council approval.

If any of those sales materialize, the findings report indicates the all proceeds probably should be plowed back into remaining public golf course operations.

Even as the city contemplates the sale and partial development of public lands, Filby Williams said, “On the protection side, the city of Duluth is working with St. Louis County to purchase and permanently protect an additional 450 acres of at-risk tax-forfeit property to be added to Lester Park.”

Much public discussion regarding Duluth's public golf courses awaits.

Filby Williams said people should be able to watch Monday night's presentation via streaming video and/or download the report itself on the city's website at duluthmn.gov.

Public comment will be welcomed this Wednesday at a 5 p.m  meeting in room 303 of City Hall, where the Parks Commission plans to discuss the findings.