The city of Duluth has proposed permanently closing its Lester Park Golf Course while making major upgrades to its Enger Park Golf Course.
Under a proposal outlined to the Public Golf Committee on Tuesday evening, Lester, which was closed last summer due to COVID-19 and declining revenue, would remain closed until 2023, when it would open for one last season as Enger undergoes renovations that year.
It's a move that would cut Duluth's inventory of municipally owned golf courses in half and, as the city hopes, allow its golf properties to make money, reversing a yearslong trend.
"The city cannot afford the additional roughly $100,000 per year the city golf program loses, we have learned, when it attempts to operate both courses at once," Jim Filby Williams, the city's director of parks, properties and libraries, told the News Tribune. "Those losses have to be offset by cuts to city of Duluth's park fund."
If financial losses of both golf courses were to continue, it would likely push back the department's playground replacement program as model playgrounds cost about $100,000, Filby Williams said.
Dan Baumgartner, a member of Duluth's Public Golf Committee and Friends of Duluth Public Golf, said he was "disappointed and sad about the announcement," but expressed optimism with potential improvements to Enger's course, especially if the golf community is involved in the planning process.
Closure of Lester
The closure of Lester Park Golf Course, a 27-hole course on the eastern edge of Duluth, has been considered for some time as the city's golf program lost money.
As it was closed in 2020, Lester will remain closed for the 2021 and 2022 seasons before one last hurrah in 2023. By 2024, it will close permanently.
Golfers like Baumgartner had fought such an outcome. He said public golf courses offer more affordable access to a sport that can be cost-prohibitive.
However, he understands this will likely be the outcome and wants to work with the city on Enger improvements and wants efforts to be doubled down to diversify local golf, even if there's only one public course going forward.
"Sometimes you fight hard for things, you advocate for them, and ultimately, you may not get what you want," Baumgartner said. "And you have to accept that."
Much of the 270-acre course will remain in the city's hands as park land and the city will seek public input on what it should become, Filby Williams said.
The city will seek buyers for the lower portion of the course.
When Lester reopens for one last season in 2023, Enger will close for upgrades.
Filby Williams said the renovations are much needed, a team of consultants that studied the course found.
"The infrastructure is extremely extensive and we cannot plausibly repair it all," Filby Williams said. "But we must, (the consultants) found, at minimum, accomplish a few things."
Improvements could include a new irrigation system; a new "probably modest" clubhouse; improvement of the worst greens, bunkers and tee boxes; and, because a developer is looking to buy 10 acres where the driving range currently sits, a new location for the driving range.
At minimum, Filby Williams said the "extremely lean plan" of replacing the irrigation system across a smaller area and a new modest clubhouse would cost $3 million.
But the golf community would be involved in advising what projects are undertaken.
Baumgartner said it's key to relocate the driving range and practice range if the developer moves in.
"We need to make sure that the driving range and the practice area get relocated without sacrificing any of the course," he said. "We're losing 27 holes of public golf (at Lester), and so we can't afford to lose any more."
Filby Williams acknowledged financing the improvements would be difficult. He said it could be funded through borrowing money and paying that back with golfer revenue, co-investment from the company that manages the course, public contributions and the proceeds from the sale of real estate at each course.
Sale of some land
The city plans to fund Enger's improvements in part with proceeds from the sale of land at each golf course. If sold, 100% of proceeds would go to the golf program.
The city had sought a buyer for 50 acres of the 270-acre Lester Park Golf Course. That land is on the lower end of the course and is near existing utilities. But the four requests for proposals received by the city did not pass muster, the city said last year.
After speaking with developers, the city has shrunk that down to 10-20 acres of the most desirable and developable land, city spokesperson Kate Van Daele said.
At Enger, Consortium Minnesota Consulting Group LLC is hoping to develop housing on 10 acres of land where the driving range currently sits and is in an exclusive agreement with the city to explore such a project.
Van Daele said that would most likely be multifamily housing, but the developer is also interested in hosting some commercial properties.
"We are still exploring options with the developer," Van Daele said.
Plans to sell park land have spurred the formation of groups like Keep Lester Green, which has urged the city to keep Lester as park land.
And on Tuesday, a number of Duluth residents emailed the City Council to urge them to "ask first" when selling public land by letting the public vote on such sales.