Price tag for below-par Minneapolis golf course upgrades: $34 million

The following article by Bill McAuliffe was published in the Star Tribune on February 14, 2014:

Price tag for below-par Minneapolis golf course upgrades: $34 million


Minneapolis’ seven public golf courses have suffered from years of neglect, and now feature bald greens, fairways sinking into saturated soil, ineffective websites, demoralized staff, “dated and disgusting” clubhouses and even a directional sign on which parks pioneer Theodore Wirth’s name is misspelled.

The cost to fix it all? $34 million, according to a consultant’s report that the Minneapolis Park & Recreation Board got a first look at this week.

But that’s money the board is unlikely to spend, much less find, for facilities fewer and fewer people are using, said John Erwin, the board’s recreation committee chairman.

“I see all kinds of things in the system that need to be fixed,” he said Thursday. “This is going to have to be discussed with the public, not just among the commissioners.” The $34 million price tag comes on a report from Colorado-based golf consultant Jim Keegan, who examined (and played) the city’s courses late last year.

Keegan recommended new or expanded clubhouses at Gross National, Meadowbrook and Hiawatha, not only for golfers to enjoy but to accommodate moneymaking weddings, business meetings and even restaurants. A new pavilion at Gross could attract tournaments.

He also recommended raising greens fees at Meadowbrook, lowering them at Columbia, Fort Snelling and Gross, and raising them for seniors, many of whom, Keegan said, can easily afford it. Columbia, while scenic, challenging and close to downtown, probably would not get much back for ­significant investment, Keegan indicated. Fort Snelling “is the wrong product for the market,” plagued by bad design and airplane noise.

The $34 million price tag was for the total cost of all the recommendations for all the courses and clubhouses. The report did, however, break the recommendations into those deemed critical. Wirth, for example, needs $8.6 million in upgrades but $4.2 million of those were deemed highly important.

Parks Superintendent Jayne Miller said the board will make short-term improvements this year, perhaps adjusting fees and some maintenance, customer service and youth program issues.

But the longer-term undertakings, Erwin noted, will require deep discussions about the importance of golf to residents and what other things the Park Board might spend money on that could also generate revenue — such as riverfront development.

Golf operations run on money they generate, not tax dollars. In 2013, they generated $6.2 million in revenue, but required $5.9 million in spending, resulting in a net operating income of $240,041. This year, the net is expected to decline to $129,138. Less than two decades ago, golf supported recreational programs far beyond tees and greens. But rounds played dropped 42 percent between 1997 and 2011, in line with national trends that have seen municipal golf courses closing or turned over to private operators.

Edina is moving to close the Fred Richards Executive Golf Course — popular with young golfers, beginners and seniors — in order to support renovations at Braemar, a bigger and more challenging course.

Erwin said the Park Board wants to offer a golf experience that caters to people of all incomes and abilities. But it has also adopted a strategy, criticized by Keegan, of transforming its golf courses into multi-season attractions.

The Park Board’s mission, Erwin said, is to provide these resources at affordable prices or at no cost. “We’ve chosen to have the public not bear the entire cost,” he said. “In the past, we were able to make a profit (on golf). Ideally, we’ll get back to a place where we’re making a profit off these golf courses, despite what was said last night (by Keegan).”