With their breathtaking views of Lake Superior, Duluth’s two public golf courses offer an experience many private clubs might envy.
But as golf participation plummets, the city’s courses find themselves deep in the rough.
The number of rounds played at the city’s Enger Park and Lester Park courses dropped by 44 percent from 2000 to 2018, according to a study released this month by a citizen advisory committee appointed by Duluth’s mayor.
Meanwhile, the courses have lost money for decades, racking up $2.4 million in debt to the city, which has covered their losses but kept a running tab on what they owe.
Add in the need for expensive renovations to clubhouses and irrigation systems, and it’s become clear even to Duluth’s most enthusiastic golfers that something has to change.
But there’s no agreement on what that should involve.
“It’s a massive undertaking, and it will take all the people,” said Dennis Isernhagen, a member of the city’s Parks and Recreation Commission. “The numbers are bad, if you just look at the numbers. I think the solution has to come from the people.”
You can lay some of the blame on Tiger Woods. Golf surged in the late 1990s and early 2000s as the young golf star exploded in popularity and prompted new fans to take up the game.
But the Tiger effect peaked around 2002. Since then, the number of U.S. golfers has dropped from 30.6 million to 23.8 million, a decline of 22 percent, according to the National Golf Foundation. During that same time, nearly 1,500 golf courses have closed across the country.
Duluth’s public courses also have been hurt by increased competition. Since 1984, six new publicly accessible courses have opened within 30 miles of Duluth, thinning the pool of golfers in what’s already a short season — five or six months at most. Meanwhile, Duluth expanded both its courses to 27 holes in 1989, adding 18 additional holes of its own to the mix.
Mayor Emily Larson appointed the nine-member advisory committee to study the situation, present the facts and examine some possible solutions.
One idea that’s garnered a lot of attention is selling the 260-acre Lester Park property to a private developer who would rebuild the 27-hole course as an 18-hole layout, with housing and possibly a hotel replacing the “back nine” near the lakeshore.
The city has signed an exclusive one-year agreement with Tom Sunnarborg, the developer, who grew up in Duluth and now lives in Florida. The agreement doesn’t bind the city to a plan but gives Sunnarborg the exclusive right to negotiate the purchase of Lester Park. Sunnarborg was not available for comment.
Under that scenario, the course would still be accessible to the public but would likely be more expensive to play, and residents of Sunnarborg’s development would have priority, according to Chris Stevens, president of Friends of Duluth Public Golf, a 400-member group advocating for the golfers’ interests.
“The type of golfer we’re promoting is the average citizen, the average Joe,” Stevens said. “For us, it’s important to make sure we have those opportunities for the citizens.”
Duluth is moving to acquire 450 acres of undeveloped, tax-forfeited land in the vicinity of Lester Park, said Jim Filby Williams, the city’s director of public administration. That could offset the possible loss of green space if the Lester Park course is sold.
The issues involving green space, he said, “are terribly important and deserve serious debate and scrutiny,” noting that the city’s comprehensive plan calls for preserving the majority of the city’s existing green space.
“What’s the right balance,” he asked, “between permanently protecting the majority of green space, but allowing a small portion to move into the private sector?”