For 50 years, Tartan Park Golf Course attracted players to its rolling and wooded refuge in Lake Elmo, but on the condition that they worked for corporate giant 3M, or knew somebody who did.

That's changing now as 3M, which owns and operates the course, quietly has opened the 483-acre property to the public in hopes of stirring renewed interest in golfing its 27 holes.

"We wanted to get this place buzzing again with the level of use it had seen historically," operations manager Craig Hanson said recently.

Hanson said "lifestyle changes over the past few years" and competition from newer courses built during the golf boom of the late 1990s lured some 3Mers to tracks "that were closer to home." As a result, he said, "the utilization of the park started to decline."

Anyone who's not a 3M employee can play Tartan's three, nine-hole courses. The public also can use other amenities on the sprawling property, including a wedding gazebo, four softball fields, 12 tennis courts, six picnic pavilions, an archery range and bocce ball courts.

A rarity in Minnesota, the 3M golf course might be the only remaining property owned by a single corporation. The other one comparable in size and amenities was owned by Honeywell Inc., in Prior Lake, but was sold several years ago, said Warren Ryan, a spokesman for the Minnesota Golf Association.

Golf courses everywhere have struggled, he said, because the industry was overbuilt even as the number of golfers playing declined. State membership in the association fell from 95,000 golfers in 2000 to about 70,000 today, he said.

"Certainly the baby boom generation needs to be replaced with golfers," Ryan said.

Since the 1950s, the Tartan Park course drew players from the huge 3M campus in Maplewood, which today is home to about 11,000 employees. A clubhouse was built in 1968.

A gradual decline in interest in the game and the rising cost of maintaining such a large property figured into the decision to open Tartan Park to the public. But it was 3M's desire for more local involvement that was the major factor in the move, Hanson said.

"Typically it's always been this place that's been exclusive, and in the public's eye, it's been somewhat reclusive," he said. "We wanted to open it up and share it with the community because community stewardship is an important part of 3M's business initiatives. There will be all kinds of reasons. I won't say that revenue was a driver, but it certainly will be a benefit."

'Shrinking demographic'

Golfers with no connection to 3M now can reserve tee times at Tartan Park and golf there as they would at any other public course. One who plans to take advantage of the opportunity is Mike Reeves, a Lake Elmo City Council member and a retired Deluxe Corp. executive.

"I think it's a really nice course. It's laid out well, it's challenging," he said. "It's a gem in terms of open space. How they choose to use it and market it, from a city standpoint, I would like to be supportive in how they use that asset."

Reeves said he golfs 35-40 rounds a year all over the metro, and there are "a lot of courses out there in the landscape that are struggling economically." Fewer people today have time to invest in playing a multi-hour sport, and Tartan Park might be coping with the same trends, he said.

"It's a lot of golf course to maintain for a shrinking demographic," he said.

Hanson said 3M countered declining use of Tartan's golf courses by adding other amenities, such as meeting rooms and banquet facilities. It also built an outdoor gazebo for weddings and celebrations.

"We've really tried to broaden out the service portfolio," he said, adding that 3M also made improvements for golfers. "We put forth effort into reconditioning the course so we had a product that would meet the competitive expectation of the people."