What’s going to happen to Hiawatha Golf Course?

30511_129611653734160_4166578_nBY ED FELIEN

Colorado-based golf consultant Jim Keegan gave a report to the Minneapolis Park and Recreation Board (MPRB) at its Feb. 12 meeting that got a lot of people’s attention. He said the major reason rounds were down at city courses was not because of cost—the costs are less than anywhere else and not because of location—there are 8,000 golfers within a five-mile radius of Hiawatha, as opposed to 2,000 golfers within a five-mile radius of most suburban courses. The reason fewer people are coming out to play on city courses is because of “the quality of the experience.”
The courses are in rough shape. Greens have patches of dirt on them. Fairways have exposed pipes. Overhanging trees should be trimmed because they’re making certain shots impossible.
Keegan estimates it would take $34 million to do all of the deferred maintenance and get all the courses up to par, so to speak.
How does he propose to pay for that?
Keegan says the solution is privatization: “That’s the clear trend. In California only L.A. has a public golf course. All the rest have been privatized.” That startled me. One of my favorite courses to play is Lincoln Park in San Francisco. It’s a municipal course. I prefer the cozy comfort of a municipal course to the rigid formality of a private course. I checked. Keegan is wrong. Lincoln Park is still owned by the City of San Francisco.
Keegan also said that labor unions have no place in the operation of a golf course. He points out that pensions represent 30% to 50% of labor costs. I suspect that figure, but I have not been able to verify or refute it. In any case, I would agree that pensions are a heavy burden for all levels of government—federal, state, local and park board. The City of Minneapolis, thanks to Mayor Rybak’s initiative, was able to persuade the state to help out with some of the pension costs. The park board should be following that example.
Keegan noted that Hiawatha has a special problem: “It is constantly being consumed by Lake Hiawatha.” I don’t think Keegan is right when he says the course is below the level of the lake. The drainage ponds built in the last 10 years seem to be at lake level, and they are well below the level of the fairways. The problem is more that Hiawatha is built on a peat bog, and frost heaves and heavy rains will often make for an uneven playing surface. What is probably needed is something like a Bodpave Ground Paver, a hexagonal plastic mesh that would allow grass to grow through and over it but would stabilize the ground and keep it level. The product is used to level dirt driveways to prevent rutting and for highways to prevent erosion. A product like that is being used now to stabilize the approaches to greens. A much deeper and broader mesh would be needed to stabilize the fairways.
So, how would we pay for all the deferred maintenance that has sent golfers away from Hiawatha?
Keegan proposes raising fees. He wants to raise the age for the senior discount from 55 to 65. He wants to charge $1 more per round and $3 more for renting an electric cart. But will those changes in all the courses raise $34 million? Probably not.
Golf courses have always been a money-maker for the MPRB. The 2014 Park Board Budget assumes continued revenues and expenses and has a surplus of $129,138. Over the years, golf has pumped millions of dollars into the General Fund to support other activities. For the past 10 years the almost $2 million ($1,931,790) operating deficits of the winter programs at Wirth have been paid for out of the golf enterprise fund. This program must be accounted for separately and should not be counted against the necessary maintenance and upkeep of the golf courses.
Finally, yes, there probably is a need for a dramatic infusion of capital to bring Hiawatha and the other city courses up to a playing level that can make them popular again. Our basketball and football arenas sell yearly naming rights to corporate sponsors. Why can’t some corporation like Allina sponsor Hiawatha? A corporate donation of $500,000 or $1,000,000 could give them a nice sign outside the entrance and on every score card saying, “Allina is proud to be a partner in the improvement of Hiawatha Golf Course,” and they could probably get a couple hundred season passes to give to patients and friends. It could become a popular form of physical rehabilitation.

One Comment:

  1. Want the GCs to make money? Most would make excellent rifle ranges. There’s an overwhelming demand by legal target shooters. Just sayin’.

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