FORT RIDGELY – Dan Brinkman estimates he walks up “heart attack hill” about 75 times each summer, whenever the retiree golfs at Fort Ridgely State Park about 90 minutes southwest of Minneapolis. He loves the views, the wildlife and the casual nature of the course, where an annual pass runs just $175.
His regular stroll around the nine-hole course may be coming to an end, however, if the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources (DNR) gets its way. The agency has plans to close the golf course in order to stop revenue losses of up to $100,000 a year.
“To me, it’s a real blow,” said Brinkman, who is one of a group of people in the New Ulm and Fairfax area who want to challenge the closing. “The golf course is near and dear to me.”
The group, Friends of Fort Ridgely, plans to make what might be a last stand during a meeting later this month. Many are angry that the DNR plans to turn the course into prairie after spending about $2 million to refurbish it less than a decade ago, when it put in irrigation lines, rejiggered the fairways and replaced the fake turf on the greens with real grass.
The group members also say that the DNR’s cuts to the park over the years contributed to the failure of the golf course, and many say they are willing to pay more to play, something the DNR has rejected.
“I put the entire blame on the DNR,” said Brinkman. “Even a bad bookkeeper would know enough to stop the bleeding.”
Phil Leversedge, director of the DNR’s division of parks and trails, said the role of golf courses in the state parks has been debated for some time; now that business is flat or declining, they decided to concentrate less on recreation and more on the park’s historical significance. Fort Ridgely was an important site in the U.S.-Dakota War of 1862, and became a training ground for Civil War recruits.
“We are trying through our park system plan to focus our energy on the most important aspects of each park,’’ Leversedge said. “Golfing isn’t typically an element of state parks.”
Historically, there were three state parks with golf courses, now the only ones left are Fort Ridgely and Fort Snelling, which is leased to the Minneapolis Park Board and is also underutilized. Leversedge said if the course is closed, it would be “restored to natural landscaping.” Though golf course supporters were told the course could close July 1, Leversedge said there is not yet a close date.
Some are skeptical of turning the course into prairie fields.
“It’s going to cost a lot of money, and it won’t draw more people,” said Brinkman.
Mark Tjosaas worked in management at the park for the DNR for 31 years, and he said the agency has turned down efforts to help increase revenue and cut costs to maintain the course, which last year served more than 2,600 golfers.
“They turned their argument to philosophy,” saying that the DNR shouldn’t be in the business of running a golf course, said Tjosaas. “Fort Snelling has a golf course and no one is telling them to close. Why us and not them?”
Tjosaas said he knows from experience that converting the course to nature will cost more than the DNR is letting on, and he points out that “virtually no facility inside a state park makes money. We lose money, but all sites do.”
Many say that the relationship between Friends of Fort Ridgely and the DNR officials in St. Paul has been tense. Some said the agency had its mind already made up by the time they brought the idea to the public.
Randy Krzmarzick, from Sleepy Eye, was one of a group of people who met with DNR officials and several area legislators who support at least delaying the close of the golf course. Krzmarzick isn’t a big golfer, but he contends that “it’s not just another golf course. It fits really well and is not competition with private courses. I do see myself in my later years just spending time out there.”
It’s sounding more like Krzmarzick will be spending that time walking the trails instead of the fairways.
On Friday local school kids grilled hot dogs near the simple clubhouse while a couple of groups of golfers hacked their way around the course, which starts with a spectacular first hole that dips into a valley surrounded by forest before rising again in the distance to the greens. The well-manicured fairways wend throughout the park, around former soldier barracks, past a trout stream and finally — perhaps fittingly — past a cemetery.
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