Like a long, undulating putt across a tricky and slick green, interest in golf in the U.S. and in Duluth has risen and fallen, picked up speed and then dropped away.
In about the late 1980s and early 1990s, golf saw its most recent boom. Tee times were tough to get, and swanky new courses and golf resorts were cut from the earth to meet the demand. In Duluth, our public links at Enger Park and Lester Park were expanded from 18 holes to 27 holes in 1991.
Since about that time, however, interest and participation in golf — like most of our putts, even on the flattest and smoothest of greens — has gone awry. Nationally, rounds played plummeted 22% between 1986 and 2017. Nearly one of every 10 courses closed. In Duluth, golfing at Enger and Lester fell off by nearly half, by 43.5%, between 2000 and 2019.
As a result, Enger and Lester have been hemorrhaging taxpayers’ dollars at an unacceptable and unsustainable clip of around $100,000 a year. As of May 2019, the public debt had climbed to a ridiculous $2.4 million.
To plot a plan to turn that tide, to stop the bleeding, the city created an advisory committee of golfing advocates and city officials. Since 2017, 121 public meetings have been held and 3,600 survey responses considered.
The committee presented its findings in March 2019, and its recommendations led to last week’s not-unexpected but a gut-punch-nonetheless announcement that Duluth’s Lester Park Golf Course needs to be closed permanently. It already had been shut down last year due to the COVID-19 pandemic. It’s to stay closed this summer and next summer and then reopen for a last-hurrah, goodbye season in 2023.
Under the plan, during Lester’s last season, the Enger Park Golf Course is to close for renovations. Parks Director Jim Filby-Williams said that perhaps as much as $3.5 million to $4 million would be spent building a new and “modest” clubhouse at Enger; relocating its driving range; improving as many fairways, greens, bunkers, and tee boxes as funding allows; and replacing the course’s more-than-30-years-old irrigation system, a system that had a life expectancy of only about 20 years.
City administration tasked the Duluth Golf Committee to work with city staff to come up with a renovation and financing plan for Enger, the money for improvements likely to come from green fees, proceeds from golf-course land sales, a “co-investment” with a golf management firm (a new management firm is being sought later this year), and from “any community financial contributions, potentially from golfers who may wish to contribute to saving public golf at Enger,” said Filby-Williams.
“It’s clear that the city cannot afford to renew failing infrastructure at both courses. We chose to focus upon Enger as the future home and flagship of our public golf program,” Filby-Williams said at a press conference, held virtually.
Lester is being sacrificed and Enger is being saved because Enger is more centrally located in Duluth, and it always has been the more popular and better used of the two courses.
“Our goal all along was to save Enger first,” Chief Administrative Officer Noah Schuchman said in a statement. “When we continued to look at the financial impact of operating both courses, it became clear that the best way to keep a public golf course in Duluth is to recommend the permanent closure of Lester.”
“We would characterize the closure of Lester as a sad necessity,” said Filby-Williams. “Most sad for those who have found years, and decades in some cases, of happiness and fellowship and exercise at Lester Park Golf Course. … I’m not asking for support or applause for this decision. We are asking golfers to accept the necessity to do this in order to save public golf at Enger Park Golf Course. I think we are cautiously optimistic that a critical mass of golfers will be prepared to accept the necessity of this decision. …
“Lester must close in order for public golf to continue at Enger, to survive and thrive.”
As for Lester’s future, it’s to remain a park — one that’s “dramatically expanding,” as Filby-Williams said, his words welcome reassurance to those who cherish and push to protect public lands. In addition to the 220-acre course reverting to parkland, up to about 400 wooded, “as-yet-unprotected” acres across Lester River Road from the course are expected to expand Lester’s boundaries this year through a city-St. Louis County deal.
Such additions more than offset any sale of golf lands. Last year, the city listed for sale 50 acres at Lester, roughly the course’s “Lake Nine,” so housing could be developed.
No buyer came forward, but the city owes it to property taxpayers to redouble its efforts asap, recognizing that Duluth has “a very high green-space ratio compared to other municipalities our size in the country, not just the state,” as city Senior Parks Planner and Landscape Architect James M. Shoberg told the News Tribune Opinion page this week. “It’s significantly more than other communities our size.”
Nearly half of Duluth — 47% — is “non-taxable,” Shoberg said.
A better balance of public lands and taxable parcels would expand Duluth’s tax base, easing the tax burden on all of us who own homes and property here.
Another golf-properties listing last year, for the 10-acre driving range at Enger, did attract a potential buyer. The City Council voted in September to enter into an exclusive agreement with a developer of housing units, an identified dire need in Duluth.
No sale of public lands is completed lightly in Duluth — nor should it be. Appropriately, a supermajority two-thirds vote of the Planning Commission and a nearly unanimous 8-1 or unanimous 9-0 vote of the City Council are needed.
“Saving Lester is no longer feasible,” straight-talking CAO Schuchman said last week.
Like a tap-in after a long and undulating putt misses the hole, “It is time to turn the page and focus on saving Enger,” Filby-Williams added.
As painful as that reality may be to Lester-loving golfers, it can be accepted as a necessity.