Save Hiawatha Golf Course

BY ED FELIEN

At its meeting on Aug.9, the Park Board will hear a recommendation from staff to close Hiawatha Golf Course and turn it into Camp Swampy, a wetlands theme park. In spite of a crowd of more than 70 frustrated golfers, a Park Board committee voted 5 to 0 to approve the staff plan.

They agreed to spend $28 million to renovate the clubhouse and expand the restaurant, build party rooms and set up picnic tables. They estimate it would cost $18 million over 20 years to maintain and operate, but it would generate $18 million in revenue during the same period.  So, they say it would pay for itself.

And they expect taxpayers to believe that.

According to the Park Board audit released last month, the most money they have ever made off of a concession is the $375,000 they made from Sea Salt at Minnehaha Falls last year. They made $92,000 from Sand Castle. Without a waterfall, a lake or light rail, it seems impossible for Camp Swampy to make anything close to the $900,000 a year necessary to break even.

It’s beginning to sound like a pipedream turning into nightmare. They’ve done this before. Nieman Field and Fort Snelling Golf Course were going to be big moneymakers. Instead, they’re white elephants, and they end up costing the taxpayers $3 to $4 million every year in losses.

The reason they give for closing the course is that they’re pumping more water than their DNR permit allows. The DNR hasn’t told them to stop and isn’t about to interfere. But the Park Board wants to use that as the excuse to close the golf course.

The water level of Lake Hiawatha is 812 feet above sea level, and that is higher than some of the fairways on the golf course that are only 810 feet above sea level.

There is a dam (or weir) at the outlet of Lake Hiawatha into Minnehaha Creek at 27th Avenue that is holding back at least 2 feet of water and another dam on the Creek at Hiawatha Avenue near the south end of the tunnel at 49th Street that is holding back 4 feet of water.

There is another dam on Minnehaha Creek between Lakes Nokomis and Hiawatha at about 19th Avenue that is holding back at least 2 feet of water in Lake Nokomis and raising the water table in that community and damaging more than a dozen homes. The dam at the outlet of Lake Hiawatha is also creating flooding in neighborhood basements.

Would it be so difficult to see if the problem of flooded basements and fairways couldn’t be relieved by taking out the dams that are holding back 4 to 6 feet of water and raising the water table for the neighborhood by that amount?

The dams were put in at the suggestion of Minnesota’s most famous statesman, Hubert Humphrey. When he was vice president he wanted to impress President Lyndon Johnson with the scenic beauty of Minnehaha Falls, but the Falls was going through a dry period, so Humphrey had the Park Board put in dams to back up the water so it would have a mighty flow for Johnson. The dams are still there. There was never a good reason to build them, and, if removing them would lower the water table by 2 to 4 feet, then, there is an excellent reason to take them down.

Hiawatha Golf Course was begun in 1929. Theodore Wirth dredged Lake Hiawatha and used the fill to create the fairways. Over the years the fairways have settled. The lake was 33 feet deep after Wirth dredged it. Since that time the large storm sewer off of the second fairway has been dumping sand, silt and debris from street storm sewers all the way from Lake Street to 43rd Street and from Chicago Avenue over to 28th Avenue into Lake Hiawatha.  Today the depth of Hiawatha is only about 11 or 12 feet.

It’s time to dig the debris out of Lake Hiawatha and dump it on the fairways that are sinking. This would purify and clarify the lake. Added depth would allow the water to filter debris that can’t be done in shallow water. And the tons of fill from the lake could raise the fairways by at least a foot in the lower areas.

Wouldn’t lowering the lake by 2 to 4 feet and raising the fairways by 1 foot be enough to reduce or eliminate the pumping?

The dams could be removed without much trouble or expense, and the lake is due for a dredging if people want to use it for swimming.

Aren’t these possibilities worth considering before they decide to close what a study of Minneapolis municipal golf courses by Convergence Golf in 2014 called a “legendary golf course.”

Isn’t it worth respecting what Hiawatha has meant to the local black community? The annual Bronze Tournament was the first African-American golf tournament in the country. At its premiere, according to local legend, Joe Louis, the Brown Bomber, sent a golf ball through the picture window of a house across 43rd Street with a five iron on the third hole.

The Golf Course doesn’t use a lot of dangerous chemicals. It uses a fungicide once every two weeks on the greens. And they should find a way to stop doing that.

Yes, Hiawatha should be more open to the community. When I was growing up around Hiawatha there were open gates in the fences and people could walk or jog around the lake.
Some people want to plant fruit and nut trees. Why not? Let’s try it out and see what happens.

There’s a First Tee program to introduce young people to the sport. The driving range and practice area are in use as early as 6 a.m.

Golf Revenues for all the courses in 2015 were $4,786,526. Expenses were $5,081,284. Golf lost $294,758, about 6% of its budget, and that had to be made up from the General Fund. Skiing had revenues of $118,448 and expenses of $823,682. Skiing lost $705,234, about 85% of their budget, and that had to be made up from the General Fund. Nobody’s talking about doing away with skiing because they lost money—or baseball, tennis or soccer, for that matter.

 

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