As ‘last resort,’ city may seek private partners for its golf courses


Golfers get in an early fall game out at Phalen Golf Course.

The City of St. Paul is considering exploring privatization of Phalen and Como Golf Courses. (Linda Baumeister/Review)

Phalen Golf Course will likely see private management next spring

Patrick Larkin
news editor

 

City officials say St. Paul’s four municipal golf courses have long been a black hole for city funds.

Though the courses were once self-sustaining, since 2008 the four courses have gone a total of $5 million into the red, said Brad Meyer, spokesperson for St. Paul Parks and Recreation.  The city needs to take action, he said.

Phalen and Como have been the biggest money pits, Meyer said. The two 18-hole courses cost $22 apiece to play on a weekday. The other two, both nine-hole courses in the Highland neighborhood, are also running in the red, but not as severely, Meyer said.

To see the East Side’s Phalen Golf Course in distress has raised concern among residents, city council members and the Payne-Phalen Community Council. It’s a piece of history to the East Side.

Nestled alone the shoreline of Lake Phalen, it was first established in 1917 and has been popular with golfing families for decades. It’s considered by many to be a treasure.

The fairways are lined with century-old oak trees and have manicured greens and tee boxes.

The 6,100-yard golf course has seen many improvements over the years, and its par 71 layout is considered one of the top-flight municipal courses in the state.

Funding pool dried up

Phalen and the other city-owned courses have dipped into the city’s special funds pool for revenue support, Meyer said. “That pool is, in effect, dried up.”

To rid themselves of this financial burden, the city parks and rec department is expected to issue a request for proposals to find a private partner to take over operations. The city would maintain ownership of the land and facilities.

The city council discussed the matter on Wednesday, Oct. 23, and decided to wait to make a decision on whether to allow parks and rec to put out the request for proposals. The council will revisit the issue on Nov. 6.

Ward 6 city council member Dan Bostrom is skeptical that an RFP is essential.

“I haven’t really been presented with the evidence that says this is something that we absolutely have to do,” he said. He questioned whether the Phalen and Como courses were “getting pinned with a losing season.”

He pointed out that 2013 was an off year for golf because of the late spring snowfalls that cut off about six weeks from the golf season.

Bostrom, who lives along the east shore of Lake Phalen, said that although he is not a golfer, many of his Ward 6 constituents are.

“We do a lot of things in the city that don’t necessarily make money,” he said, listing off things like maintaining Phalen Regional Park and city recreation centers. “You could call all of these losing propositions if you were looking at them from a strictly financial perspective.”

Meyer said that golf is not considered by the parks department to be an essential service.

“The golf courses are a hobby, not a core value (of the city),” he asserted.

Community perspective

Leslie McMurray, director of the District 5 Community Council, said the board of directors discussed the future of the Phalen Golf Course with parks director Mike Hahm on Tuesday, Oct 22, before the RFP went up for discussion by the city council.

“It was a very heated discussion,” she said. In particular, the board focused on how the city encountered such a large budget deficit with the golf courses before taking action, she said.

She said the board members also took issue with the lack of early notice from the city -- the community council heard of the proposed changes for the golf courses only days before they went up for discussion by the city council.

Christian Schweitzer, who’s on the District 5 board, said the city’s response to growing budget deficits at the golf courses was perhaps “a bit lackadaisical.”

But he said he was happy to hear that the parks department is taking action.

“I’m very pleased to hear that they’re trying to take on some creative solutions,” he said.

Schweitzer added that he was happy to learn the city would still maintain control over the prices for a round of golf and other policy decisions.

Darlene Adams, another District 5 board member, said the deficit the city ran up on golfing was “ridiculous.”

“As a city, we have to do a better job of managing the money that we entrust them with,” she said.

Jonathan Bohn, chair of the District 5 board, said that above all, residents “want to make sure that the green space stays in the neighborhood.”

And as it looks so far, that should be the case, he said.

Private partner

Under the proposed partnership, the city would negotiate a revenue-sharing agreement with the partner, and maintain ownership over the land and the buildings. 

Meyer called the move to find a private partner “kind of a last resort,” after the parks department tried to readjust and make up for the courses’ lost revenue.

Meyer said the move to find a private partner came after a three-year-long effort to fix the golf courses’ financial woes, under the “Compete St. Paul” ordinance. The ordinance requires that underperforming, non-essential city services be assessed and changed to try to fix the problems, Meyer said.

Amy Brendmoen, Ward 5 city council member, said she saw the move to go to RFP as “a lifeline” for golf.

She said among her concerns was what might happen to the facilities during winter.

She noted that Como is “like Richard Scary’s Busy Town” come winter.

The Phalen golf course also sees a good deal of winter activity. The city grooms a cross country ski trail on the course during the winter, as well as at the Como and Highland courses.

Wally Wakefield contributed to this story.

Contact Patrick Larkin at 651-748-7816 or at eastside@lillienews.com.

 

A course in history

In recent years the Phalen Golf Course has been expanded to include the areas that once were a hotbed of East Side hockey and other sporting events at the Phalen Playground.

At one time in the distant past, the course was the end cap of a street car line. It ran north of along Forest Street and continued north into what is now the Phalen Golf Course.

The streetcar would carry loads of picnickers into Phalen park. At approximately the site of the present clubhouse, the tracks made a huge circle in order to allow the streetcar to return toward downtown St. Paul.

Just north of the clubhouse, a bandstand at one time drew throngs of East Siders and others to the area for what were very popular Friday night sing-a-longs.

The Phalen Golf Course had the first woman golf pro in Minnesota. Nora McGuire was the pro and golf instructor for 29 years.

McGuire was in charge of the golf and clubhouse operations until four years ago when she retired and gave way to present golf professional Jody Christensen.

In addition to her professional golfing duties, Christensen oversees the handsome clubhouse, which has a dining area, pro shop, offices and banquet facilities.

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