The Les Bolstad Golf Course is beloved but bedraggled. Now the University of Minnesota is bracing to decide if its course should get a $19.5 million renovation or if the 120 acres of rare open space might be put to new use.

This past spring, the U's Department of Recreational Sports proposed redesigning the 18-hole Falcon Heights course and driving range and renovating its classic white clubhouse, which is now condemned. In response, U President Eric Kaler requested more detailed business and fundraising plans. He will make a decision this fall.

"We are so landlocked," said Jerry Rinehart, the U's vice provost for student affairs. "To have this big piece of land for a golf course -- are there other purposes for it? I think any good leader would want to raise that question."

Golfers have pushed the university to preserve and update the public course, which was built in 1929 and, as its website boasts, provides a "tree-lined path through the history of Minnesota golf."

"The university course has a long, rich tradition," said Tom Ryan, executive director of the Minnesota Golf Association, which supports the renovation. "We believe because of that, it's worth saving."

Neighbors and golfers have guessed at whether the university would sell the land or build on it themselves. But U officials said it's far too early for such talk.

"There has not been any discussion about that at all," Rinehart said. "That will not be a light decision, and it will be made very transparently."

Too short for tournaments

The course is too short to host college golf tournaments, and the university's teams don't use it much. For years, the course was run by the athletics department, but in 2009, recreational sports took it over, hoping to boost revenues and the number of students signing up for tee times.

The department expects the course to turn a profit this year. But it lost money six of the past 10 years.

In 2006, for example, the course's $1.93 million in expenses surpassed revenues of $1.75 million, according to the "preliminary" proposal. Coaches were using the course "to raise money for the department, but they wouldn't pay back the course," Rinehart said. "A lot of maintenance didn't get taken care of."

Since 2009, the university has spent about $688,000 in capital improvements for the course, including $480,000 for a temporary clubhouse in 2011. The U will need to invest $340,000 to keep operating the course in its current condition until 2017, the report says, for things such as mowers and seeders.

Now the course's revenues are tightly tied to weather. "With a big rain, there is flooding," Rinehart said. "A hot spell will kill off the greens."

But a renovation -- paid for through naming rights to clubhouse rooms and course holes, among other things -- could eventually bring in more than $500,000 in annual profit, the proposal's authors argue.

Adding higher-tech turf management, a banquet room and alcohol sales "would allow the course to be maintained in prime condition and improved over time," the report says.

"The question is what should be done, given the university's priorities?" Rinehart said. "People who love golf say, 'Why aren't you doing this?' But the average person on the street, when you talk about investing in a golf course, says, 'What?'"

In the summer edition of the University of Minnesota's Men's Golf Club newsletter, member Bill Casey worried about the "possible danger facing our facility."

"It's easy enough to believe that a tradition-rich, beloved open-space resource like the Les Bolstad Golf Course would never be liquidated or traded away in pursuit of 'progress,'" he wrote. "Yet, these are times of exceptional economic challenge for all state universities, ours included."

Most Big Ten universities have their own golf courses. At least five, including Penn State University, claim two 18-hole courses.

Neighbors like green space

The University of Minnesota's course sits close to the St. Paul campus, along Larpenteur and Cleveland avenues in Falcon Heights.

The nearby University Grove neighborhood, eight blocks of notable homes built on university-owned land, is advertised to be "nestled between the University golf course and one of St. Paul's premier neighborhoods, St. Anthony Park."

Falcon Heights Mayor Peter Lindstrom said that he would probably support a course upgrade but would be sensitive to changing the course's two holes that fall south of Larpenteur Avenue and alongside housing. He expects that the university will include his city in discussions about the course's future.

"We, the community, like it being green space," he said, noting that people ski there in winter. "We like it being open space."

If Kaler gives the renovation his OK, the project would proceed through the university's capital planning process, which prioritizes projects.

The university must be sure it can raise private funds to cover the project's cost, Rinehart said. The May proposal notes $10.9 million in verbal commitments, including several million from Bloomington-based Toro Co., which sells turf and irrigation systems and equipment, for things such as "access to facility for research." The university redacted from the document other specific "revenue sources," saying that such donor data is private.

Talks are "very preliminary," said Toro spokesman Branden Happel last week. "No commitments have yet been made."

A renovation would also need to build research and educational opportunities for faculty and students, Rinehart said.

"If we're going to do something, it can't just be a golf course," he said. "We've got enough golf courses."

Jenna Ross • 612-673-7168