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Loss in popularity, climate change put pressure on public golf courses

Change is hard because golf is such a potent symbol. But fewer golfers and wetter conditions are creating dilemmas for local cities.

Golf is declining nearly everywhere, particularly over the past 15 years.
Golf is declining nearly everywhere, particularly over the past 15 years.
Photo by Ludwig Schreier on Unsplash

As 2 inches of rain fell on Memorial Day, pushing Minnehaha Creek to near-record levels, Patrick Flanagan, a local app developer, went out to check on the city-owned Hiawatha Golf Course.

His resulting Twitter video showed a family of ducks swimming around the fairway.

“The lake has overtopped the berm,” narrates Flanagan as he wades on the wet land surveying the scene. “Water’s coming over the edge of the berm. The lake is about 3-4’ higher than the level of the golf course, and water is spilling over the top of the berm form the lake onto the golf course. This is normally a fairway, and there’s the lake spilling onto it.”

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For many in the neighborhood, the sight of Lake Hiawatha flooding the fairways comes as no surprise. Just a few years ago, during the wet spring of 2014, the lake flooded the 18-hole course and closed it for months. Since then, it’s come to light that the Parks and Recreation Board (MPRB) has been annually pumping more than 240 million gallons of groundwater off the course to keep it playable for the golfers. (The quantity of pumping violated its state permit, though it has since gotten a temporary variance.)

The unsustainable status quo has the Parks and Rec Board looking for alternatives, and last year it convened a Community Advisory Committee that’s met five times. But so far the conversation about the future of the golf course has not been easy.

“The concepts that have been looked at — the configurations include nine holes in two of the concepts,” explained Tyrize Cox, assistant superintendent for recreation. “Some of the Community Advisory Committee would prefer more than nine holes, but the nine-hole options have been presented, and that’s the direction we have from the Board of Commissioners.”

An aerial image of Hiawatha Golf Course from 1935.
Courtesy of the Minnesota Historical Society
An aerial image of Hiawatha Golf Course from 1935.
All of the proposals involve allowing water to reclaim some of the historic wetland, but that poses a challenge for the current status of the lake and the fairways.

“Because the golf course is largely below the existing elevation of the lake, it’s hard to make a flood-resistant golf course,” said Michael Schroeder, assistant superintendent for planning for the Park Board.

A long-term decline

While the underwater Hiawatha 18 is the most extreme example of the modern golf dilemma, courses throughout the Twin Cities are experiencing a pair of trends that, when combined, throw doubts on their future.

On the one hand, the sport of golf is seeing general long-term decline.

“We have seen a decline in the number of rounds played in our golf courses,” said Schroeder. “There were times when we looked through some of the data and saw Meadowbrook [the city’s premiere course] had 50,000 rounds played. Now we look forward to 30,000 or 35,000 rounds played. That’s a fairly significant decline.”

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Minneapolis is not alone. Golf is declining nearly everywhere, particularly over the past 15 years. There are lots of theories for the shrinkage: The large time commitment, the history of racial and gender exclusion, and the high monetary expense usually lead the list. But whatever the reason, golf courses around the country are having to consider closing, or else invest in improvements aimed at competing for a piece of an ever-striking pie.

Publicly owned golf courses have to smooth another wrinkle. As part of city budgets, golf is just one line item among the many that face increased pressure in an era of rising costs and belt-tightening. It prompts the question: Why should taxpayers spend money subsidizing golf, instead of spending on things like affordable housing, libraries, or fixing streets?

Looking to the future in Ramsey County

While Hiawatha is the most extreme example, the problem of golf’s shifting climate faces nearly every Twin Cities government, where maintaining public golf courses is par for the course.

“It had been quite some time,” said Mark McCabe, Director of Parks and Recreation for Ramsey County. “There had not been a comprehensive review of the golf system [and so] it was time to take a look at how our overall golf system is doing, and study the health of it in terms of finance and customer experience.”

Last year, Ramsey County commissioned a Texas golf consultant to examine the possible future of the four county-owned golf courses scattered throughout the St. Paul suburbs. The resulting 534-page report, which came out earlier this year, contains cautious optimism.

“We were pleased to hear that, overall, the state of golf in Ramsey County is healthy,” explained McCabe. “That’s opposed to most municipal operations around the country, but Ramsey County is operating profitably.”

While the county’s courses break even as a whole, the authors of the study were unable to include all the costs, such as the expense of the county’s fleet vehicles, or the costs of debt service. For example, five years ago Ramsey County spent $12 million to upgrade its flagship 95-acre Keller Golf Course in Maplewood. With upgraded fairways bunkers and clubhouse, the course turns a profit, but that’s only if you do not count the service on debt, which McCabe admits, will take many years to pay off.

The report also urged the county to clarify the “philosophy” of its public golf program and to choose whether the county’s courses should be run more like a public service or more like a for-profit business.

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“I think it goes to an operational philosophy,” McCabe said, explaining the approach. “Do we want golf to be an amenity open and accessible at all courses to every level? So if we lose money that’s fine because we’re going to subsidize it from somewhere else? Or do we feel like it needs to operate like a profit center, and cover its expenses, and the money remaining should be invested in the course or given to the public?”

According to McCabe, the county Board of Commissioners recently held a workshop centered on the question, where they “reached consensus around operating as more of a profit center.”

But even there it’s not so simple to turn a profit on a golf course in 2019. Even though they are run as part of the Minneapolis Park and Recreational Board’s profit-generating “enterprise program,” the seven municipal courses in that city have operated at an annual loss of almost $2 million.

To increase profitability, Ramsey County’s consultants suggested better appealing to “latent golfers” — folks who might be interested in golf but need encouragement — as well as making investments to tees, bunkers and clubhouses. Both are tips that McCabe and Ramsey County have already begun to implement, though as of this year, there is no capital funding identified for changes to the courses.

“We’re hoping to apply for funding for a capital improvement program during the next couple of years, 2021 and 2022,” explained McCabe. “We’re hoping to secure some funding to address irrigation system upgrades, to do a better job improving bunkers, and redesigning them with forward tees to allow a broader audience to utilize the facilities.”

Wetter Minnesota and the sinking foundations

But another problem literally lurks on the horizon: climate change. And it certainly does not help that many of the region’s golf courses were on fill soil on top of wetlands.

Rice Lake
USGS Mississippi River commission
Rice Lake in 1895: “When Theodore Wirth created Lake Hiawatha, he dredged a million and quarter cubic meters of soil from Rice Lake and deposited it on wetland areas to create the golf course,” explained Michael Schroeder.
“The area where Hiawatha was built, and the developed neighborhood around it, were built during the most significant drought in recorded history for much of this area,” said Kenny Blumenfeld, the senior climatologist at the Minnesota State Climate Office. Blumenfeld has been helping provide climate background to the Hiawatha Community Advisory Committee as they’ve debated what to do with the golf links.

“In the ’20s and ’30s, because of the drought, it probably led to a believe that it was OK to just drain the wetlands,” he explained.

But things have been changing. With warmer air, and more volatility, south Minneapolis and the entire region have been experiencing much more rainfall, a pattern that is likely to continue.

“We do have strong statistically significant trends towards wetter conditions in general,” explained Blumenfeld. “Especially over the last four to five decades, you see a pretty sharp increase in the amount of precipitation falling annually, and increases in frequency of 1-inch daily rainfall totals or even 2-inch or 3-inch daily rainfall totals.

The new climate pattern means that the flooded greens that greeted the maintenance crew this week will be the new normal. In other words, old Rice Lake wants its wetland back.

The neighborhood politics of golf

Changing a golf course is rarely simple. In the northeast corner of St. Paul, the city is struggling to clean up and re-use Hillcrest, a private 110-acre defunct golf course, where possible pesticide pollution is holding up land acquisition and development. Meanwhile, in the Highland neighborhood, debates over the money-losing municipal nine-hole have not found easy answers, but instead resulted in contentious community meetings.

Even as the banks of Lake Hiawatha overflow their berms, the debate in Minneapolis around the future of the course has not reached a consensus. Yellow “SAVE HIAWATHA GOLF COURSE” lawn signs are popping up on Ericcson neighborhood lawns, and a grassroots movement is trying to stop any changes to the 18-hole course.

Change is hard because golf is such a potent symbol. For generations, entire neighborhoods were predicated on proximity to the landscape of grassy links. As President Donald Trump might attest, golf is synonymous with perceptions of wealth, and being near a golf course has long translated into higher property values and residential exclusivity. As a result, losing a golf course strikes at the heart of aspiration.

None of the proposed changes from the Minneapolis Park and Recreation Board jettison golf altogether. Instead, most show retain a lot of the golf landscape, though with a lot more water involved.

Hiawatha Golf Course Area Master Plan images: Concept 1Concept 2Concept 3

For all of the examples, however, the Park Board would have to spend millions. Right now no funding has been allocated to making any changes.

“We have to find a source of funds,” explained Michael Schroeder. “We have to go through a significant design and engineering and remitting process. It would take us two to three  years, and you’ll not see any substantive change on this property for four to five years.”

Each year, with fewer golfers, more rain, and more pressure on budgets, it becomes harder to justify spending tax dollars subsidizing golf.

Even so, because golf is so central to neighborhood identity, it’s rare to find a champion for closing or re-purposing the land. And even in the Minneapolis Park Board discussion, even with the untenable status quo, there is little talk of removing the golf course altogether.

“People suggested that the Park Board will close this and sell it for condos,” said Schroeder. “We would not be doing that. It’s not for sale. This is park land in Minneapolis. It’s park land and it’s going to continue to serve residents of Minneapolis.”