Golfers and the general public can weigh in on what to do with the Minneapolis Park and Recreation Board’s (MPRB) five public courses through an online survey planned to be open on the main page of www.MinneapolisParks.org from Dec. 4-14.
Group meetings in September yielded this preference: “Properly maintain what you have, and if you have to, shut each entire course down once and do renovations right.” There was “no clarity of priority” in the total of $30 million needed if all courses were to receive “critical, competitive, comprehensive” renovation, Golf Convergence managing principal James Keegan said at the final meeting Oct. 5.
The park system treats golf as an enterprise; it’s supposed to pay its own way. In the 1990s nationwide a lot of new courses were built, but for seven years in a row, more courses have closed than opened, and the number of rounds played are down by about the amount of dollars that need to be invested to keep operating, Keegan said. “When we were young, we played 25 percent more rounds than current youth.”
In the facilitated groups I sat with, the players have played many different courses, enough to have detailed analysis of the holes by number, and to comment on what their own “market will bear.”
Many golfers commented on how winter sports ruin courses for summer use; that’s been a major factor in changes slated for Theodore Wirth. Some wanted to know more about the Fort Snelling 9-hole course that the park board leases. As it’s not ideal for golf because of airplane noise, could it be re-purposed?
Golf Convergence is a Colorado company that is conducting a full “operational study” covering everything from irrigation systems to the customer experience at the club house. Keegan is a licensed Certified Public Accountant who has seen 4,000 courses in 41 countries, a half dozen in Minnesota. His associate Kevin Norby said that includes the Les Bolstad course at the University of Minnesota St. Paul campus, which changed from a $350,000 a year loser to a $450,000 profit generator, now looking at $7 million in improvements.
Sara Ackmann, Director of Golf for MPRB, said “The last 10 years have seen a decline in golf rounds sold, and a flattening of operational cost, but a lack of investment” in course repairs. Golf Convergence’s job will be to recommend how to modify the golf system to make it self-sustaining; figuring out what improvements are needed to keep and attract paying customers, possibly differentiating more dramatically between courses, such as a designating a course as guaranteed to play fast (2.5 hours instead of 4-5).
As one man put it, “Minneapolis is a utilitarian environment. You’re not welcome at premiere courses if you’re a beginner, or slow play. If you want to expand the player base and have inner city kids playing,” you need these municipal courses (Gross, Columbia, Hiawatha, Wirth and Meadowbrook).
Participants commented that Minneapolis courses also play slow because it’s time-consuming to find balls on weedy fairways, the rough, or in the woods at Wirth, compared to better-maintained courses. A man representing the maintenance union workers said that where there used to be six full time workers per course, now there is one, assisted by seasonal hires who turn over.
Oct. 5, Keegan said the courses require 12,500 hours to maintain, and currently 9,860 are allocated. “You can’t cut your way to prosperity,” he said.
Golfers mostly declined to entertain hypothetical situations where any of the courses, especially what they consider their “home” courses, might be turned into different kinds of golf or recreation, such as an 18-hole course becoming a 9-hole “executive” course with practice facilities and a mini-golf or disc golf area. When there’s a specific proposal, there will be meetings to get community and golfer opinion, park representatives said.
Norby explained that total renovations would shut a course around Labor Day one year, work would proceed until the ground freezes,then continue from thaw through the next summer. New seed would go down in August and the course could be ready to play the following spring, about 18 months after the course closed. Trying to keep a course open for play during renovation could mean temporary greens on a couple of holes at a time, over several years.
As one golfer put it, “I would walk away for a year and I would come back” to a renovated course. When a course is in disrepair, he continues going there occasionally because it’s familiar, “but it’s tough to bring friends and not be embarrassed.” Another repeated a theme: Make the course a good experience, keep the price about the same, publicize it and you will sell enough rounds to make it worth doing the renovation.
Keegan reported other observations gathered from the meetings around the city. In addition to those mentioned above, he said “differential pricing is appropriate if the demographics of the surrounding area are considered” (if there’s a higher priced course it should be in the richest neighborhood). “Ted Wirth proponents support that facility being the flagship of the MSP courses,” and “Hiawatha residents are ‘mad as hell and not going to take it anymore.’”
There are many well-maintained golf options in the surrounding metropolitan area if people are willing to drive there and if tee times are available, golfers reported. There are even $27 and $29 deals out there, some as regular prices, some as internet coupons. Bunker Hills, run by Anoka County, gets mentioned as popular with kids as well as adults.
Minneapolis 18-hole fees range from $21 for weekday green fees only, with a patron card, to $47 at open rates with a cart on the weekends and holidays, according to www.MinneapolisParks.org. Golfers reported $65, $85 or upwards of $100 per person for a round of golf at “premiere” courses.