The case for the course

The Minnesota DNR contacted the Friends of Fort Ridgely to ask if they could attend our monthly board meeting on March 21. Six officials came from the regional office. They told us they wanted to engage our organization in planning the future of Fort Ridgely State Park. But first they informed us that the DNR was closing the historic golf course at the park. That shocking news seemed an odd way to begin a “conversation.”

The Friends of Fort Ridgely unequivocally opposes the decision to close the golf course. We feel it is a bad decision on many levels. It is a stunningly brazen move by powerbrokers in the DNR with absolutely no input from local stakeholders, park users, or community members. We wish to refute the points we heard that night:

“The golf course is losing money.” Most activities and programs offered by Minnesota State Parks do in fact “lose money.” They are not intended to turn a profit; they are meant to offer a wide range of outdoor options across the geographic breadth of Minnesota.

Several numbers were tossed out at our meeting to indicate the loss by the golf course. None of them was as high as the $125,000 that has since appeared in the media. We think that is grossly inflated. There are many ways to allocate equipment and labor costs to the operations in a state park. In addition there were one-time “costs” caused by flooding and lightning strikes which the state does not insure against.

Besides, if the budget were a major concern it would seem logical to go to the skilled park staff at Fort Ridgely and ask them to reduce the gap between income and expenses. They have ideas in both areas. No such effort was made.

And if budgeting issues are driving this, how much sense does it make to close the course after spending $2.1 million on the recent renovation? Decommissioning a golf course is not inexpensive, and something will have to be planted in that space, likely restored prairie. We could be looking at the DNR spending more that $4 million to NOT have a golf course. This hardly seems good stewardship of the state’s finances.

“Usage at the golf course has declined.” Several years ago the decision was made to close the office for certain days of the week and reduce hours on the others. It is only logical that the number of recorded rounds of golf would fall when that happened. You can’t run a golf course by absenteeism. Less service begets reduced usage in a self-fulfilling spiral.

“Fort Ridgely Golf Course is just another golf course and should not be competing with commercial golf courses.” Here we strongly disagree. Anyone who has walked the course knows that Fort Ridgely is unique in our area and in the state. It offers a natural experience wending its way through the prairie, woods, and ravines. The opportunity to interact with nature and history makes a round of golf at Fort Ridgely an uncommon experience that does not exist anywhere else. It is a walk-only course which also distinguishes it. A laid-back golf experience appeals to the young, the old, and the less experienced golfer.

Neighboring golf courses do not see Fort Ridgely as competition. In fact, the golf courses in Sleepy Eye and Fairfax supported the recent renovation project. Fort Ridgely has had a good working relationship with both. There are many golfers who learned to play as children at Fort Ridgely who went on to become members at other courses when they got older.

“Running a golf course is not an appropriate state park function.” The Minnesota State Park system offers a wide range of outdoor activities across the state. Our golf course fits easily with those. There was the insinuation that somehow golf is not “natural.” One can point to the man-made pool at Flandrau and the bison in a pen along Highway 68 at Minneopa as examples of less than pure natural experiences.

“A golf course does not fit the historic focus of Fort Ridgely.” The golf course is celebrating its 90th anniversary next year. It is one of the oldest courses in southern Minnesota and has achieved a historic value of its own. Multiple generations have golfed there, first on the sand greens, then the artificial turf greens, and now the grass greens.

We feel we can make a strong case to save Fort Ridgely Golf Course. Unfortunately, none of us was given that opportunity. The DNR presented this as a final decision. Why would a decision of such significance not involve any public input?

The DNR has important roles to play in our state’s conservation and water quality efforts. Unfortunately, this action reinforces negative stereotypes that are common in outstate Minnesota: that the DNR is overbearing, wasteful, and tone deaf to local concerns. It is exactly the wrong move at the wrong time.

For 90 years Minnesota’s leaders thought a golf course belonged at Fort Ridgely. Now a small group wants to make a decision that will be permanent and irreversible. We hope they will reconsider; we hope they will listen.