Raise more money or cut courses? Rochester golf at crossroads

ROCHESTER – Officials here are reviewing their options for the city’s four golf courses after years of operating losses and a directive from the the City Council to create a sustainable plan for golf’s future in the city.

Now, after several packed meetings, city officials want to hear from residents over the next few months as they create recommendations for the council. At stake is possibly closing or downsizing at least one of the city’s four courses: Soldiers Field, Hadley Creek, Eastwood and Northern Hills.

Deputy City Administrator Aaron Parrish told the Rochester Parks and Recreation Board Tuesday that the city’s golf budget routinely faces deficits of up to $300,000 a year, though the pandemic has boosted golf traffic and revenue. The courses typically generate $1.27 million to $1.34 million in gross revenue each year.

In addition, some courses have recently undergone major improvements while others face millions of dollars in potential fixes over the next few years.

City staff offered three options:

  • The city could do nothing, which would lead to fewer improvements and declining quality at each course.
  • The city could make up the deficit either through increased property tax levies, increased fees per golf round, or a combination of the two. Keeping up with estimated future needs would cost about $850,000 annually — about a 1% levy increase. The city could budget more conservatively at $500,00 per year.
  • The city could downsize one of the courses to nine holes, or close and repurpose it, or sell it off altogether. That could mean housing developments or other community amenities such as arboretums, sports fields or other recreation opportunities, which would cut down on the city’s golf-related operating expenses.

“If we could get the money, I’d like to keep all four courses and develop more programs,” Park Board President Linnea Archer said. “If we have to balance our budget and we’re not going to be able to get more money, then I think we have to decide which of the courses makes the most sense [to cut].”

Cities across Minnesota are grappling with similar golf course issues, from Ramsey County looking to sell a course to the city of Maplewood to Duluth closing one of its golf courses in an effort to save the other.

A National Golf Foundation report earlier this year on Rochester’s four municipal-owned golf courses found but there isn’t enough traffic or revenue to justify all four. The foundation recommended the city cut down to two 18-hole golf courses and Hadley Creek, which is used as a learning facility.

Though Soldiers Field gets the most traffic, the report outlines problems with the course’s aging infrastructure — it was built in the 1930s and will need significant funding for improvements. The City Council discussed potentially closing Soldiers Field about five years ago, but that conversation ultimately went nowhere as golfers pushed back.

Area golfers take issue with the report, arguing that it doesn’t reflect the city’s actual revenue through season passes and that it overestimates course needs.

More than 50 people packed the Park Board meeting Tuesday, though few spoke.

In submitted comments, former Park Board President Larry Mortensen pointed out that golf outpaces other recreational activities in annual revenue, with $1.4 million in 2021. He argued that golfers and golf professionals should be included in future city-led course studies.

“The intent would be to ensure the voices in the golfing community are included in the decision process,” he said.

Jenna Bowman, a spokesperson for the city, said staff plan to survey residents and hold forums to gather public feedback. The Park Board is expected to report to the council in November or December; their recommendations on golf courses could be included as Rochester determines its 2023 levy.