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Commission will weigh in on Duluth golf courses

The view from the putting green of the number two hole on the Lake Nine at the Lester Park Golf Course in Duluth. (file / News Tribune)

Members of the Duluth Parks and Recreation Commission indicated Wednesday that they have no inclination to shy away from what's bound to be a controversial issue — whether the city should consider the possibility of selling and/or downsizing the Lester Park Golf Course.

Acknowledging that the decision would be a heavy burden, Jim Filby Williams, Duluth's director of public administration, said he didn't wish to place the task on commissioners' shoulders without consulting them first.

Commissioners responded with resounding accord that they ought to weigh in on any prospective sale of city green space.

The Park Commission reviewed and discussed the findings of the Duluth Golf Citizen Advisory Committee Wednesday night, and they also heard from members of the public who showed up to share their views about the future of the city's two public golf courses at Lester and Enger parks.

The eight citizens who participated in a public comment period all came out against any prospective sale of the Lester Park Golf Course.

Developer Tom Sunnarborg has proposed to purchase the course and use the back nine holes — about 75 acres — to put up a hotel and housing development. He proposes to operate the remaining 18 holes as a private golf course that would remain accessible to the general public.

If such a deal is approved, the city, in turn, would use any proceeds from the sale to help fund needed improvements at the Enger Park Golf Course — notably a new clubhouse and irrigation system.

Rich Staffon, president of the Duluth chapter of the Izaak Walton League said his organization is dedicated to "defending our soil, air, woods, waters and wildlife."

"A big part of that is protecting and safeguarding our public lands and our green space," he said.

Even though Duluth's public golf courses have continued to operate at a loss, racking up $2.4 million in debt, to date, Staffon said they remain a significant recreational resource.

"Keeping this area undeveloped also helps protect the watershed and the water quality of the Lester River. We've recently learned this lesson from problems that developed on Amity Creek, which is a major tributary to the Lester River, because of development. Those soils in that area are very sensitive," he warned.

"Once this tract of public green space is gone, it's gone for good. We encourage the city to make a really careful investigation before considering a sale to a private developer. This is the people's land. You are the trustees of that land, and we're looking to you to treat that land with care and really think hard about how it should be used," Staffon told members of the Duluth City Council at their Monday meeting, where he also testified.

Tim McEvoy, a local golfer said: "I don't understand how a city sells it parkland." He suggested the city look at raising its golfing fees instead to make the courses self sustaining.

Filby Williams noted that a survey of local golfers was not encouraging on that front.

"I personally don't think we should invest too much in those findings. But for what it's worth, they expressed a fairly strong feeling that folks are not willing to pay significantly more," he said.

Tim Lee — a member of the Golf Citizen Advisory and vice president of Friends of Duluth Golf — agreed that the survey results indicated as much. But he said: "This runs contrary to my personal experience ... and I think it runs contrary to most of the public comments I was able to listen to on Monday night," referring to testimony at the City Council meeting earlier this week.

Dennis Isernhagen, a parks commissioner and member of the golf advisory committee, told councilors, the city had taken an odd approach to running its public golf program that seemed to set it up for failure.

"The city has insisted that the golf courses need to operate as a private business. They need to carry their own weight. I support this position. However, if you're going to operate as a business then you need to function as a business," he said.

"For the past several years, the city administration has put forth an operating budget that is losing money. No successful business would develop a budget that is going to lose money. Simply increasing the fees would have had a very positive impact on the budget," Isernhagen said, noting that the city also had done little to market its courses.

Dan Baumgartner faulted the city for its management as well, saying: "I do not feel the city made a good-faith effort to make the courses successful."

Filby Williams suggested the municipal courses' financial problems arose primarily from an overbuilt golf landscape, with 72 new golf holes coming online within a 30-mile area from 1984 to 2003, not to mention Duluth adding 18 holes to its own inventory in 1989.

City administration will use the advisory committee's findings as a basis for developing a recommendation. That recommendation could be made in conjunction with Friends of Duluth Golf members, if city staff and golfing advocates can agree.

If not, Filby Williams said the Parks Commission and the City Council may need to choose from competing plans. Given their differences, he said the latter scenario is a very real possibility.

"Forcing consensus where it may not be could lead to some unintended negative consequences. So we foresaw this possibility from the beginning," he said.

Filby Williams said he aims to put the question to the Parks Commission and the City Council in the next two to three months.

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