After three years of wrestling with the future of public golf in Duluth, decisionmakers enter September poised to deliver on permanently becoming a city with one public golf course.
"While we've got some funding gaps to shore up, we are on a path to a sustainable golf program that demonstrates our efforts to right-size our system and still serve all of its users," Parks and Recreation Department Manager Jessica Peterson said.
Beginning at Wednesday’s virtual Public Golf Committee meeting, the city will unveil plans for $7.1 million in renovations to Enger Park Golf Course. A separate action will consider the redevelopment of roughly 37.5 acres of the closed Lester Park Golf Course, which would reopen for the season in 2023 while Enger renovations are conducted, before closing for good as a golf course.
“It’s still going to be contentious, and rightfully so, because there’s a lot of people who are devoted toward Lester golf and it’s been a hard pill to swallow,” said David Demmer, chair of the Public Golf Committee and vice chair of the city’s Parks and Recreation Commission, two bodies that will need to vote on the changes before the City Council would take up votes starting Sept. 27.
“But I’m in favor of improving the infrastructure at Enger to make it a playable course and to preserve public golf,” Demmer continued. “If we want to preserve Duluth public golf in light of the numbers that led us to the hard decision to close Lester, it’s still going to take the golf community and everybody around it to continue to make tough, but strategic decisions.”
The city began tackling the future of public golf in 2018, when the two courses’ debt accumulation reached $2.2 million. The ensuing years have featured studies and consultations with experts, along with numerous public meetings and conversations within the golfing community.
“While some decisions are challenging and difficult, we do feel as if there is a viable path forward for public golf in Duluth,” Peterson told the News Tribune this week. “We are making responsible decisions on consolidating the public golf program and assessing parkland alongside the city’s comprehensive plan’s initiatives for smart housing and development that is needed. So, collectively, while this conversation has many sides and angles to it, we’ve arrived at a place that has potential to satisfy many if not all of these angles.”
The city proposes to use revenue bonding to be paid across 20 years for the first $4 million of Enger's $7.1 million renovation. The proposed conveyance of 37.5 acres of Lester parcels to the Duluth Economic Development Authority, and possible future parcel sales from either golf property, would help fund the remainder of renovations — with 100% of the appraised value of any parcel sales at either course dedicated to Enger renovations.
The city will also look at phasing in Enger improvements, using long-term golf course sponsorships, grant funding and philanthropic funds to help pay for the remainder of renovations, Peterson explained.
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At one point, it was thought the city could renovate both courses for roughly $7 million, and that Enger would require only a rehabbed clubhouse.
But those notions grew outdated as the process unfolded with the help of Norby Golf Course Design, of Chaska, Minnesota, and Architectural Resources, Inc., of Duluth.
“Since 2018, the construction market has changed drastically,” Peterson said. “And we’ve dived deeper into our analysis of critical repair items that would be necessary to bring the (Enger) course to a lush, green, aesthetically pleasing, playable standard.”
Todd Armbruster is the city’s parks project coordinator. He described how roughly $4 million is ticketed to replace Enger Park’s failing irrigation system.
“It’s a critical need,” he said. “We’re looking at 27-hole replacement of all piping heads, the pump station, upgrading city water supply, so we can better water the course during drought conditions, and expanding the irrigation ponds.”
A new clubhouse, he said, would remove barriers, like stairs, and put everything on one level.
“It would still have the same amenities with better design and layout,” Armbruster said.
The city had previously sought proposals to develop the Lester Park parcels, but that process neither garnered a developer nor led to a sale. The plan to now convey the parcels to DEDA is necessary, Peterson said, to realize the Enger Park renovations.
“The sale of park land on the golf courses has been already anticipated as part of our process, and has been very clearly relayed to both commissions and the council,” Peterson said.
For Demmer, the proposal to renovate Enger will present an easier hurdle than selling parcels of city-owned land.
“Lester, in my mind, is down to a land management issue … for anybody who has a stake and appreciation in open spaces — golf course or not,” Demmer said.
He noted that while this month's votes may look like the end of a process, he says the plight to both save golf in Duluth and reimagine Lester Park is only just beginning.
"The golf community in general is just starting to rise up to the challenge," Demmer said. "The only way we're going to overcome this kind of challenge is together. There's a lot of room for parties interested in both Lester and Enger. If everybody works together, we could have a really good result, not just for golfers, but all of the other user groups who could potentially be a part of this solution."
The measures for Enger renovations and Lester parcel sales are ticketed to be considered at the following upcoming meetings:
- 5-7 p.m. Wednesday, Public Golf Committee.
- Sept. 14, Planning Commission (Lester only).
- Sept. 15, Park and Recreation Commission.
- Sept. 27, City Council.
The virtual Public Golf Committee meeting Wednesday can be accessed at duluthmn.gov/live-meeting. Learn more about Enger Park Golf Course renovations at duluthmn.gov/parks/parks-planning/progress-in-the-park/enger-golf-course-renovation.
This story was updated at 11:54 a.m. Sept. 3, 2021, to correct the number of acres at Lester Park Golf Course being conveyed to DEDA at 37.5 acres. It was originally posted at 11:35 a.m. Sept. 3, 2021.