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Rochester golf plan spreads added cost among golfers and property owners

Proposal headed to Rochester City Council calls for dedicating $500,000 a year for golf operations and improvements through increased user fees and dedicated tax revenue.

Mortenson 1.jpg
Larry Mortensen warms up on the practice green at Eastwood Golf Club on Saturday, Oct. 15, 2022.
Randy Petersen / Post Bulletin
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ROCHESTER — Larry Mortensen sees the future of golf as a priority for Rochester.

When he read the National Golf Foundation report on the state of Rochester municipal golf earlier this year, his review was mixed.

“Fundamentally, that study was reasonable,” he said, pointing to agreements about some proposed upgrades and the potential for increasing fees to meet revenue needs.

However, he objected to the idea that golf wasn’t living up to its potential in the city.

Younger generation holds mix of views related to Rochester's use of city parkland for golf.

National comparisons used in the report failed to acknowledge that golf in Minnesota, like many outdoor activities, isn’t a year-round sport.

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“Those trying to challenge golf are using those to say we are not meeting national standards, which is true,” he said of how many rounds are played in any given year, without acknowledging that Minnesotans have less time to golf than their counterparts in Florida.

Local golfers have repeatedly pointed to crowded courses when local weather allows them to play, indicating use is higher than some people suggest.

“There have been times when all the tee times are taken, and you can’t get out there and golf,” Rochester golfer Sharon Earle said during a Park Board public hearing.

Mortensen said the report’s failings led him to pull together six other like-minded golfers to comb through the foundation’s findings and consider options.

The work led to a proposal that pointed toward reduced needs for immediate improvements and a potential for increased fees related to season passes. The effort served as a starting point for a plan recently recommended by the Rochester Park Board.

While the National Golf Foundation recommended the city needed to secure $800,000 annually for at least five years to get its golf program up to par, continued local study by city staff determined a $500,000 was more realistic and could support golf beyond five years.

Mortensen and his fellow golfers suggested a 12% raise in seasonal pass fees next year and smaller annual increases through 2027 could be a step toward eventually generating an extra $350,000 a year, but Parks and Recreation Director Paul Widman said the numbers fell short when compared to participation records for the past five years.

A five-year average balances years of reduced participation with increases during the COVID-19 pandemic and points to a 20% increase for season passes and a 10% increase for daily fees next year, Widman said.

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Smaller annual increases would be expected to follow, and the proposal is expected to generate an extra $250,000 a year by 2025.

“It will take some time — two or three years — to get there,” Widman said, adding that the plan is a proposal, and participation and revenue will be reviewed each year to determine whether changes are needed to hit the $250,000 target.

Under the proposal, an additional $250,000 in property tax funds would be used to obtain the $500,000 annual goal, with $100,000 used to improve operations and $400,000 for course improvements.

Rochester Park Board backs proposal to increase fees while seeking steady commitment of property tax revenue for golf course operations and improvements.

The property tax designation is expected to generate a fund to cover projects that have traditionally caused spikes in tax commitments related to golf.

Widman said the plan also helps provide a time frame for needed projects,

“This puts (Rochester Golf Pro) Jeff Gorman and myself in a situation where we don’t have to wait years for a road at Northern Hills (Golf Course),” he said. “We will have an answer and some type of projection when the Eastwood clubhouse will be addressed.”

Rochester City Golf Courses
The road leading up to Northern Hills Golf Course on Friday, Oct. 21, 2022, in Rochester. The road is one of the improvements the city's Parks and Recreation Department is hoping to make if funding is secured for the project.
Traci Westcott / Post Bulletin

Since 2014, the golf program has seen as much as $350,000 in tax dollars spent on golf in a single year, and last year saw the program operate without tax investment.

Mortensen said he likes the proposed approach, but also plans to encourage the Rochester City Council to get a bit more aggressive and commit some of the voter-approved parks referendum funding to golf.

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“I see no reason why, other than they don’t want to, that we couldn’t reprioritize what’s in parks,” he said of a plan for $15 million in referendum funds .

The plan for referendum funds initially included golf projects, but the council opted to remove them for projects that better matched the language on the ballot question that passed in 2020.

Additionally, discussions earlier this year revealed potential support among many council members for closing or scaling back a golf course, without landing on a specific recommendation.

Closing one of the four city-owned golf courses would appear be counter to findings reported in a recent phone survey of 400 random households and 206 identified golfers.

When asked about options for funding golf, only 3% said they’d prefer to close a course.

However, the survey also failed to point to a clear funding preference between putting all the cost on fees, using taxes to fund the program needs or splitting costs between the two.

Widman said the split was determined to be the best approach after golfers who attended a series of public discussions cited a willingness to pay more.

“There is plenty of opportunity for growth in our annual fees,” Ken Berg, president of the Eastwood Golf Club men’s league, said during a Rochester Park Board public hearing on golf, which followed Mortensen’s proposal for a 12% increase next year.

The recent survey conducted by Minneapolis-based Morris Leatherman Co. calls some of that support into question, since 74% percent of the golfers said current fees are “just right” and 17% said they are too high.

On the other side of the issue, Park Board member Marty Cormack said many homeowners are worried about committing property taxes to golf on an annual basis.

“Almost all the citizens who personally contacted me did not support a tax levy,” he said in a Twitter post following Park Board approval of the plan that included his sole objection.

Rochester resident Benjamin Zastrow said he doesn’t think the proposed tax dedication is out of line, as long as it doesn’t cut into city efforts to build up and maintain other park amenities.

“When we are being penny-pinched and told we can’t have trash cans in our parks, and it’s got to be up to us to fund raise, independently, I think it does rub some people the wrong way,” he said.

Peter Leatherman, who led the recent phone survey, said 45% of respondents believe city property taxes are high and 46% believe they are about average.

Of those called, 70% said they’d support a property tax increase to maintain city services, if needed, but only 51% said they’d approve of an increase to enhance city service.

“This is typical of what we saw about a decade ago in the middle of the recession,” Leatherman said.

Asked directly about park services, 53% said they’ve used the city’s larger parks and 52% said they had used smaller parks. In each case, a small percentage — 3% of all respondents — said they had a negative review of their experiences in the parks.

Additionally, 68% of the survey participants said they have used city trails and 28% said they have used golf courses.

The survey results will be reviewed by the Rochester City Council during a Nov. 28 study session, when it will also receive the Park Board proposal.

The council will not be able to make a final decision on the proposal that day, but a formal action is expected at a future council meeting.

Rochester City Golf Courses
Golfers tee off on hole 3 on Friday, Oct. 21, 2022, at Northern Hills Golf Course in Rochester.
Traci Westcott / Post Bulletin
Rochester City Golf Courses
Golfers putt on hole 3 on Friday, Oct. 21, 2022, at Northern Hills Golf Course in Rochester.
Traci Westcott / Post Bulletin

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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