After a years-long and often passionate debate over the future of its struggling public golf courses, Duluth administrators have recommended downsizing one of two city-owned courses and selling part of the land to build much-needed housing.
The proposal calls for closing nine of the 27 holes at Lester Park Golf Course, located at the far eastern end of the city, and selling 50 acres of the course to help fund more than $3 million in improvements at the more centrally located Enger Park Golf Course.
Under the plan, the city would sell the land to a developer after the golf season ends this year, to accommodate up to 400 multi-family housing units, 80 of which must be affordable apartments or townhomes. The proposal would also allow the driving range at the Enger Park course to be sold and developed into as many as 120 housing units.
The plan follows a more than 15-month public process. An advisory committee made up of city officials, Duluth golfers and other citizens studied the issue and made recommendations on the future of public golf in the city. The proposal needs a city council vote to be put in action.
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Golf is popular in Duluth; golfers there typically play about 70,000 rounds a year. But, following a national trend, participation has declined in recent years. Duluth's two courses have lost around $100,000 annually, they're more than $2 million in debt and face millions of dollars more in needed capital upgrades.
"It was a compromise with the city," said Chris Stevens, president of the group Friends of Duluth Public Golf and a member of the advisory committee.
While the plan preserves the remaining 18 holes at the Lester Park course for now, it calls on the city to evaluate the course's financial performance in four years, and then determine whether it's "strong enough to justify continued golf operations at Lester in 2023."
That's OK with Stevens.
"We're happy that the city is actually giving us an opportunity to prove that the golf course is a valuable asset in our city," he said. "With active participation from the golf community we think we can turn [the course's finances] around. This gives us a real honest opportunity and fair chance to be able to do that."
The city proposal also aims to permanently protect land near the two golf courses from future development.
The plan calls for the city to purchase about 450 acres of county land adjacent to Lester Park, across a road from the golf course. That land currently features popular hiking, biking and ski trails.
Duluth would also purchase 30 acres of additional tax-forfeit land adjacent to Enger Park.
"We are very excited about the overall increase of green space," said Duluth Chief Administrative Officer Noah Schuchman. "The opportunity to protect that land for all Duluthians is a win-win for everyone involved."
City administrators plan to present the proposal to the city's parks commission next week. They'll bring the recommendations to the city council on May 13.
Any decision to sell public park land would require a supermajority vote: eight out of nine council members.