The Minneapolis Park Board rejected a $43 million redesign of the Hiawatha Golf Course for a second time Wednesday night following a zealous debate between ecological sustainability and historic preservation.
Park staff have recommended reducing the number of holes from 18 to nine in hopes of improving flood resiliency and reducing excessive groundwater pumping at the low-lying course abutting Lake Hiawatha. The 5-4 decision means the course will remain unchanged, with 18 holes.
The plan was the result of a yearslong process that included a community advisory committee, extensive public engagement and multiple Park Board meetings prolonged by passionate pushback from those who opposed any change, those who wanted to revert the golf course to its natural form as a floodplain and other views in between.
It went before the Park Board for a vote in April and failed on a technicality then. Commissioners resurrected it for a second try.
"We have an obligation to ecology here," park landscape architect Tyler Pederson urged in his presentation of the plan. "Even though this year is drier, overall we are getting wetter and hotter. … This plan pushes toward a balance of golf and other activities set in the landscape, guided by water management. … It recognizes that restoration of natural processes are a goal greater than those supporting human activities on the site."
In 2014, storms inundated Hiawatha Golf Course and kept swaths of it out of service for more than a year.
Even on clear days, the Park Board pumps groundwater out of the course to keep it dry enough for play because the course sits below the level of Lake Hiawatha and would fill with water without constant intervention. The board pumps more than 300 million gallons of groundwater a year from the course, in excess of state water appropriation laws. It is currently operating on a temporary DNR permit that calls for a long-term solution.
Hiawatha's significance to Black golfers was a key sticking point in the fight over its future. For decades it has hosted the Upper Midwest Bronze Golf Tournament, created in 1939 for Black golfers when the Professional Golfers Association would admit whites only. Even so, Black golfers weren't allowed inside the clubhouse until Minneapolis golf champion Solomon Hughes Sr. fought to integrate it.
"I've had so many calls in the past two weeks from Black elders in this community saying, 'Please don't tear this place down,' " said Commissioner Londel French. "I've had people call me saying, 'Hey, my dad used to take me out there when I was a kid. It was the only place we could afford to play at.' So many memories. When it's near and dear to Black folks? We need progress. Gotta make the environment OK. Gotta make sure the water is protected. White folks have been screwing up the environment for hundreds of years."
The course redesign plan was recently amended by Commissioner LaTrisha Vetaw to include benefits to the Black community, including the creation of golf management internships and jobs. She intended for the amendments to be compromises that would invest in economic prospects for Black youth — things that seemed more important to her than golf, she said. However, Vetaw said she ultimately sided against the staff plan because the majority of people in the Black community who reached out to her urged her to keep Hiawatha an 18-hole regulation course.
"As a Black woman who's seen history be erased, who has watched civil rights heroes' legacy be torn apart, I can't do that," said the at-large commissioner, who was poised to be the deciding vote on a split board. "I can't be the Black woman who sits on this dais and says, 'Solomon Hughes and his children don't matter, and all those hundreds, maybe thousands of Black people who have reached out to me about this don't matter."
Board president Jono Cowgill made a final appeal to pass the staff-recommended plan, warning that in light of climatologists' predictions that storm events will become more severe, Hiawatha will become a swamp unless something is done to mitigate its water issues.
"The intent in bringing this back for consideration is really out of respect for the public's time over the last many years to address a problem that's not going to go away. … Whether or not we want to accept it, that we have major climate change coming our way," he said. "If we don't take action. Maybe not tonight but soon, we won't have a golf course to protect. There won't be a historic place to golf at or recall the history."
The plan failed with Commissioners Brad Bourn, Kale Severson, AK Hassan, French and Vetaw voting against and Steffanie Musich, Chris Meyer, Meg Forney and Cowgill voting for it.
Commissioners then unanimously passed a separate resolution to rename the Hiawatha clubhouse after Solomon Hughes Sr. to acknowledge Black history and the struggle for equal rights at the site.
The normal process of naming a building requires two public hearings to gather resident responses and the passage of two years before taking action. Staff recommended and commissioners voted to suspend those rules on Wednesday, citing the Park Board's vision statement of operating "Dynamic parks that shape city character and meet diverse community needs."
Susan Du • 612-673-4028