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Golf advocates make their case to Rochester Park Board

Public hearing seeking comments on city-run golf saw majority of voices seeking to maintain four courses, with many speakers stating they would be willing to pay more.

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A crowd gathered for a pair of Rochester Park Board public hearings Tuesday to discuss city-run golf and the proposed update to the Silver Lake Park master plan.
Randy Petersen/Post Bulletin
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ROCHESTER — Pleas for maintaining Rochester’s four city golf courses mixed with personal stories connected to the sport Tuesday during a pair of public hearings related potential changes to courses and an update to the Soldiers Field Park master plan.

“I think Rochester public golf is one of the greatest things about the city of Rochester,” Jeff Fritzjunker told the Rochester Park Board as approximately 160 community members gathered at the Mayo Civic Center. “It’s one of the reasons I’ve lived here for 34 years.”

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He shared experiences related to helping coach young golfers, as well as a recent outing at Soldiers Field Golf Course, where he met the husband of a Mayo Clinic patient who had been in town for a week after his 32-year-old wife had a stroke.

“What he really needed was some respite, and by having a chance to walk four blocks from his hotel to play a round of golf meant so much to that guy,” Fritzjunker said.

He was followed by a combination of 22 others, many of whom shared finding community connection and healthy outlets on city golf courses.

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The golf advocates among them also pointed to system-wide revenue of $1.74 million in 2021 as an indicator of increasing popularity of the sport in a growing city.

Rochester golfer Jeff Meyer said trends show younger golfers are engaging in the sport, which points to the need for space for existing and future players.

“With the increase in popularity, Rochester would be seen as moving backwards rather than forwards in what state and national trends are showing,” he said.

However, not everyone attending Tuesday’s hearings agreed that the city’s parkland was best used by four courses, especially when it comes to Soldiers Field Park.

“Looking at how the city is projected to grow and being part of that growth myself, I do wonder which voices are being over-represented and under-represented in these discussions so far,” said Nick Miller, who lives in a neighborhood near Soldiers Field Park.

He said he believes many people attracted to living near downtown Rochester would prefer opening the greenspace to other uses, which has been suggested as a long-term plan for the park.

Several council members voiced a desire to maintain 18 holes at the golf course.

Tuesday’s hearings were part of a Rochester Park Board process designed to hear the variety of opinions related to golf and potential uses for property currently dedicated to the sport.

The Rochester City Council tasked the board, along with Parks and Recreation staff, to look at options for the city-run golf with three possible outcomes:

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  • Maintaining four courses with a source of $722,500 in added annual revenue.
  • Optimizing the program with the potential to reposition one of the courses for another use.
  • Maintaining the current courses without added funding.

Deputy City Administrator Aaron Parrish said maintaining the courses without new funding would be deciding to neglect a city resource.
“We have to be good stewards of this asset, if we are going to maintain one course, two courses, three courses or four courses,” he said, pointing to three options that could keep all four courses in play.

While a recent National Golf Federation report stated $722,500 in new annual investment would be needed to maintain and operate the four course, Parrish said city staff believes the amount is closer to $500,000.

He said the funds could be generated three ways: through a 0.58% increase to the city’s property tax levy, a $5.20 increase in fees per round of golf or a combination of tax and fee increases.

Several of the golfers who spoke Tuesday said they’d be willing to pitch in, whether through increased taxes or fees.

“We have underpaid to play golf for years,” said Mark Rieder.

Larry Mortenson, a former park board president and avid golfer, said proposed increases to season passes over a five-year period would eventually provide an extra $350,000 for the city’s golf program.

Mortenson was part of a seven-member group of golfers that prepared an evaluation of the National Golf Federation study as part of Tuesday’s presentation before the public hearing.

He said the group agreed with the foundation that daily greens fees are on target, but the cost of seasonal passes is too low.

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He said a typical adult season pass costs $795 in Rochester, while a golfer in St. Paul pays $1,050 for similar access to that city’s courses. A season pass for Minneapolis courses is $1,600, he added.

In addition to proposing increasing the seasonal fees, Mortenson said the group believes some of the improvements suggested by the National Golf Foundation are unneeded.

He said key improvements – fixing entrance road and parking lot at Northern Hills Golf Course, repairing the maintenance building at Northern Hills, replacing the Eastwood Golf Course clubhouse and completing an irrigation system at Soldiers Field – would cost the city $2.5 million, rather than the $3.6 million the foundation suggested spending.

“Some reprioritization should be completed among the many (capital improvement projects) within Parks and Rec, so no additional dollars from taxpayers are needed to complete these golf projects,” he said, pointing to annual funding the department receives for maintenance and upgrades throughout the park system.

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Rochester Parks and Recreation Director Paul Widman speaks Tuesday, Sept. 20, 20222, to the Rochester Park Board and city residents prior to public hearings held in Mayo Civic Center.
Randy Petersen/Post Bulletin

Park and Recreation Director Paul Widman said the information gathered Tuesday will be combined with input being sought through a series of open-house events at the city’s four golf courses, which start Wednesday. The events are:

  • 10 a.m. to noon Sept. 21  at Northern Hills Golf Course, 4721 W Circle Drive.
  • 2 p.m. to 4 p.m. Sept. 22 at Eastwood Golf Course, 3505 Eastwood Road SE.
  • 8 a.m. to 10 a.m. Sept. 23 at Soldiers Field Memorial Golf Course, 244 Soldiers Field Drive SE.
  • 4 p.m. to 6 p.m. Sept. 28 at Hadley Creek Golf Course, 2390 Hadley Hills Drive NE.

Additionally, the city is conducting a scientific poll related to golf, with 500 random Rochester residents being polled in the upcoming weeks.
A second online survey, allowing any interested residents to participate, will be conducted in October.

Jenna Bowman, the city’s strategic communications and engagement director, said the information gathered will be presented to the Park Board during its Nov. 1 meeting, with the expectation that the board will make a recommendation to be taken to the Rochester City Council on Nov. 21, 2022.

Randy Petersen joined the Post Bulletin in 2014 and became the local government reporter in 2017. An Elkton native, he's worked for a variety of Midwest papers as reporter, photographer and editor since graduating from Winona State University in 1996. Readers can reach Randy at 507-285-7709 or rpetersen@postbulletin.com.
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