Cross-country skiers and off-road bikers say they need a home. Golfers worry they're being edged out.
Minneapolis' largest park is caught in a tug of war as it considers changes to keep up with evolving interests in sports and their competing needs. Golfer frustration that's been brewing over the potential changes spilled over during a public comment session at a Park Board meeting last month.
Plans include a sports welcome center, a launching area for races and an off-road bike course that would weave through parts of the 759-acre Theodore Wirth Park on the western edge of the city. A separate but related project would relocate the last two holes at Wirth's 18-hole golf course, partly to accommodate the non-golf activities. Golf rounds at Wirth's two courses have declined since a peak in 2000.
"It's a bit of culture shift. It is," said Bruce Chamberlain, Minneapolis Park Board assistant superintendent. "And it's because of the changing dynamic of the city and what people want out of recreation."
The Park Board is preparing to vote on the $6 million project -- not including the hole relocation -- which is a public-private partnership with the Loppet Foundation. The plans, dubbed the "Silent Sports Center," would be made possible by $3 million in private funds raised by the Loppet Foundation as well as $1.5 million in state bonding dollars. Chamberlain said a $1.5 million funding gap remains.
The changes come as sports such as mountain biking, cross-country skiing and snow tubing have grown increasingly popular at Wirth. Cross-country ski teams from schools across the area frequently descend on the park for races, and revenue from winter recreation is steadily increasing. The only refuge from the cold is a 1920s-era Swiss-style chalet -- used by golfers in the summer -- that struggles to accommodate the crush of winter athletes.
But concerns persist over the specifics of the agreement with the Loppet Foundation, an 11-year-old nonprofit best known for its annual City of Lakes Loppet Ski Festival, which took place over the weekend. The organization also runs a number of youth outdoor programs.
Vote on contract delayed
The Park Board was poised to vote on the agreement in January but scuttled it until late February amid concerns over a contract that Commissioner Liz Wielinski called "craptastic" because it lacked key details. Golfers say they didn't have enough input in the plan and object to a provision allowing the Loppet Foundation to start collecting fees for the smaller Par 3 golf course -- since the center will replace that course's clubhouse.
"To put completely inexperienced people from the Loppet Foundation in charge of that kind of process, when they have a motive to make sure that it fails, is completely wrong," said Robert Dwyer, who represents a group called Friends of the Theodore Wirth Par 3. "It's like putting the fox in charge of the henhouse."
Dwyer notes that the Loppet Foundation once proposed essentially eliminating the Par 3 course, which serves a "wider variety of people," by moving it to the 18-hole course. Current plans do not include changes to the Par 3 course.
Paul Kieffer, who represents golfers at the 18-hole course, said the new center shouldn't move forward until there is a firm plan for the 17th and 18th holes, which he adds are among the first nine holes of public golf in Minnesota. At least one of the holes was already in need of improvements because it had fallen into disrepair.
"There should be plans in place for both," Kieffer said. "We just feel golf is being left behind. And golfers have supported Theodore Wirth with hundreds of thousands of dollars over the last couple of decades alone."
Clash of interests
Ron Edwards, a local community activist who has played golf at the Par 3 since it was built in the 1960s, has sensed an underlying goal to eventually eliminate both courses.
"I know what their strategy is," Edwards said. "And that strategy is to do as much as they can to discourage a sense of 'golf-dom,' if you will."
At the Park Board's Jan. 16 meeting, however, most acknowledged the need to accommodate the rush of new athletes. John Munger, who heads the Loppet Foundation, notes that golfers rarely converge in large numbers because of staggered tee times.
"With the high school [cross-country] league, every afternoon that's what happens all winter," Munger said. "All of a sudden at 3:30 there's 600 to 800 kids converging on the building at one time. And it's not really made for that type of use."
Chamberlain said everything is "back on the table" following the Jan. 16 meeting. A revised agreement is expected to return to the Park Board Feb. 20.
Evan Jones, head Nordic ski coach at Breck School, often has to park his 50-person team in the bus or bring them to the crowded second-floor of the chalet during long down times.
"There's so many events that we do and so many times that we're there [that] having an indoor facility ... would really benefit us and the sport a lot," Jones said.
Michael Baker, who runs the chalet, said his staff sometimes spends several hours cleaning the floors when athletics converge with private functions, like wedding parties.
"You have this great cross-country ski event that's been up there," Baker said. "And now I've got a bride the next day using that same facility."
Eric Roper • 612-673-1732 Twitter: @StribRoper