Bea Blomquist believes too many communities see golf courses as a way to generate revenue and upgrade their image, but it comes at great cost and there may not be any payoff in the wake of the bulldozer. “I think there’s a myth out there that communities can make money on this, but I don’t know that that’s true,” she says. “I believe you rarely get the true cost of golf courses because they spread it into other budgets, such as the cost of maintenance of courses. What cities are doing is taking from all taxpayers to take care of a few.”
Though the economics of golf do not indicate any need for new courses, Ramsey County just opened the $3.5 million Ponds at Battle Creek in south Maplewood this year, despite the existence of several nearby public golf courses. (The county owns an existing course in Maplewood, in fact.) Kevin Finley says market research shows that demand exists for a nine-hole course for less experienced players. This may be true, as the number of rounds at those courses grows annually.
Yet even Finley remains skeptical of the need for new courses. “There’s been a level number of golfers and a significant number of new courses,” he confesses. But the kind of course in Maplewood may be the key to understanding a new trend. “It can be played quickly, because it’s shorter. So it has an advantage when people are pressed for time,” he notes. At least the county got a deal on the construction; prisoners from its correctional department assisted in building the course and its farmhouse-style clubhouse.
The most controversial course remains the one at the Blaine athletic complex, if only because public funds are involved. At the urging of state representative Phil Krinkie of Shoreview, legislative auditor James Nobles looked into the financial dealings behind the course this year. Initially, the legislature passed a bill to provide $3.1 million to the sports commission to build the facility. Krinkie and other legislators believed that the land for the course would come from Anoka County Airport in Blaine, just next to the sports center.
The original concept called for the commission to lease land from the Metropolitan Airports Commission, which owns the airport, and build a golf center. The commission did lease the majority of land from the MAC, but it also spent $2.5 million for a seventy-five-acre sod farm across 105th Street from the National Sports Center that may be used for a nine-hole golf training center. As it stands, the land remains undeveloped. Another five hundred thousand dollars went to pay for equipment, including golf carts and maintenance machinery. The extremely complex deal was cleared by the state auditor earlier this year, but Krinkie has asked the Ramsey County District Attorney’s Office to look into the matter.
The course has a benign objective and fills a need, argues Barclay Kruse, associate director for the sports commission. The sports center receives three million visitors a year, he says, and having the golf course will attract kids who play soccer and other sports to try golf. While he concedes nearby courses already have youth programs, he says the sports center will only create more youth golfers to help other courses fill their tee times.
While the state money is spent, Kruse says the commission has raised an additional seven million dollars to pay for the course. Yet a month before he was interviewed by The Rake, the state auditor sent a letter to Krinkie stating that the sports commission reported to him that only $2.65 million had been raised. The only sponsors revealed by name are the City of Blaine and First Tee, a nonprofit organization in St. Augustine, Florida, dedicated to creating opportunities for disadvantaged youth to learn golf.
The whole project smells to Walker and his members, especially those operating courses near the sports center. They’re struggling to survive without subsidies from the state and they have no ability to attract corporate sponsors, says Walker. Another golf course consultant, who did not want to be named, agrees. “The course in Blaine does not need to be built,” he says. “That’s not anywhere near the population of youth golfers we’re trying to reach. What I see is the sports commission trying to build a fiefdom.”
Walker wonders why young golfers would need carts for a nine-hole course—isn’t golf about walking?—and he says the money the NSC already spent on the equipment would have been available two years from now, when the course will open. If youth golfers fail to materialize, will the course open to adults, who might need the carts?
While private golf-course owners are mad about the whole process and the potential waste of taxpayers’ money, the looks on the faces of the children of Eagan, hitting balls on the NSC’s putting green on a warm July day, show a mixture of concentration and joy as they learn the game. They’re aiming balls at small holes on sloping greens, the first step in what golf’s promoters hope becomes a lifelong love affair. Whether Blaine will become the epicenter of youth golf remains an open question. But no one doubts that children and teenagers—and not aging baby boomers—will be its future.