As golfers teed off at Thompson Oaks Golf Course on a recent sunny afternoon, West St. Paul City Council members a couple blocks away discussed a plan for the busy Robert Street corridor that could include transforming the municipal course. Into what? They’re not yet certain.
The closure and redevelopment of golf courses is a well-documented trend. Twenty-eight courses have closed in Minnesota over the past decade, according to the Minnesota Golf Association. Thompson Oaks faces the usual problems — financial struggles, a lack of interest among young people and too much competition — but its closure would be a fairly unusual move.
Only two of the 28 courses that closed were municipally owned, according to Minnesota Golf Association data. One of those, in Edina, remained parkland.
West St. Paul is taking soil borings at the course this summer to help determine what could be built on the site, and how much it would cost. While the city doesn’t yet know what it will do with the property, selling the rare swath of open land to developers is among the options.
Council Member John Bellows said the city is still “doing our homework” but he would like to see mixed-use development. Mayor Dave Meisinger said he wants senior housing. Both men said the lake on the site should be incorporated into any project.
“It’s not even worth kicking the can around,” Council Member Ed Iago said, until the city knows about the quality of the soil and any potential contamination.
West St. Paul officials are zeroing in on a few key areas along Robert Street as they try to revitalize the lackluster commercial corridor.
The city is in the midst of a controversial $41.9 million reconstruction of 2½ miles of the roadway. Redeveloping the land around it to keep and attract residents and business is the next step.
The nine-hole Thompson Oaks course is in one of those key areas called Town Center. It includes the golf course, a nearby YMCA, library and other properties along Robert Street. The River to River Greenway trail eventually will run through the area.
The golf course is one of many moving pieces in the Robert Street plan, Andrew Dresdner, a senior associate with the Cuningham Group, told council members Tuesday. The group is contracting with the city to update the plan.
“What is the future of golf in the region?” Dresdner asked. “Is it going to remain a golf course?”
Thompson Oaks has seen a drop-off in use. People played 5,053 fewer rounds of golf there in 2014 than they did in 2005, according to course income statements. Over the past 10 years, West St. Paul has subsidized course use at an average rate of $7 per round, the statements show.
But it is not as bad off as other city-owned courses in Minnesota, according to state auditor’s office data on municipal golf course enterprise funds. Thompson Oaks ended the 2013 budget year with a deficit of $23,993. The median course had a loss of $80,440.
‘Political hot potato’
The city has not met with community members on the golf course’s future yet, because “there would be more questions than answers,” Meisinger said.
Officials will provide information to residents throughout the process, Bellows said.
“Repurposing the golf course would be a significant community issue. Communication will be critical with the current golfing community, surrounding residential and business property owners, and the general public,” staff wrote in an April memo to the City Council.
In other cities, people have formed nonprofits to lobby cities to save golf courses. Eagan City Council members even received a death threat from an angry citizen over the vote to allow development at the Parkview Golf Club, which was a privately owned course.
“It’s hard to make everyone happy in these types of situations,” said Ann Kattreh, Edina’s parks and recreation director. Edina closed its municipal Fred Richards Golf Course last year and is turning it into a park.
Municipal golf courses “can be a political hot potato because they are precious,” Minnesota Golf Association spokesman Warren Ryan said. And the future of such courses is not always based on financial statements, he said.
“It’s not just about whether they’re making money or not,” Ryan said. “It’s about what sort of services they provide their users.”