Commissioners vote to reduce pumping at Hiawatha Golf Course

The South Minneapolis course will remain open until at least the end of 2019

Park commissioners recently voted 6-3 to reduce groundwater pumping at Hiawatha Golf Course, a move that will ultimately close the South Minneapolis course in its current form.

The vote follows the recommendation of the Department of Natural Resources to reduce pumping on the site, which would protect nearby private property but not maintain the 18-hole course.

The Minneapolis Park and Recreation Board will convene in mid-October to evaluate future options, including other golf configurations, for the property.

“This is not an easy decision for us to be facing,” said President Anita Tabb at an August board meeting, “but the fact of the matter is that we do need to do less pumping according to the DNR.”

While the resolution passed by the Park Board does not directly dictate the course’s closing, it will reduce pumping to approximately 94 million gallons a year, down from the 242 million gallons of water it has pumped to keep the course dry. Hiawatha Golf Club, a component of the Nokomis-Hiawatha Regional Park, will remain open as an 18-hole course until at least the end of the 2019 golf season.

The closure has loomed over the course since 2014 when record rainfalls flooded and temporarily closed the course. As the Park Board moved to restore the course, staff became aware that the board was pumping groundwater into Lake Hiawatha at rates much higher than the 38.5 million gallons per year permitted by the DNR, which is allowing the board to continue pumping at the current rate until the next flood. Park staff have noted that the site, mapped by the Federal Emergency Management Agency as a floodplain, will inevitably flood again.

The new reduced pumping plan would keep nearby properties safe from flooding, which Michael Schroeder, assistant superintendent of planning services, said is the board’s priority. If left unchanged, the site’s groundwater issues will require additional resources in the future, and reducing pumping is important in maintaining water quality, staff said.

Vice President John Erwin said he wants to keep golf at Hiawatha, but the groundwater problem won’t simply go away if the board continues to maintain the course.

“We don’t want to get rid of golf as a group. We’re here because we have this issue with a piece of property that’s sinking,” he said. “We as a board try to make sure we have a palette of recreational opportunities for everyone in Minneapolis. Clearly golf is one of the those recreational opportunities we want to offer in Minneapolis.”

The Park Board hasn’t formally recognized alternatives of the 18-hole course or funding paths to finance the transformation of the site. In place of an 18-hole course, park staff have looked into developing Hiawatha into a nine-hole course, which may not be profitable — only one of 25 nine-hole courses in the state is, staff noted — and costly. Alternatively, commissioners have discussed turning the site into a food forest.

Park staff project that a new use for the site could lead to more park visits, from the estimated 211,000 visits of a maintained golf course to 525,000 visits of an alternative destination.

The three “no” votes came from District 2 Commissioner Jon Olson and citywide commissioners Annie Young and Meg Forney.

Forney said the board needed more time to evaluate other options.

“We need to slow the pace down,” Forney said.

Olson questioned the financial viability of a nine-hole course. Golfers looking for 18-hole courses, such as those in leagues or clubs, drive revenue, according to the board. While revenue from nine-hole courses is typically less than half of 18-hole courses, staff note, the expenses of nine-hole courses are more than half of their larger counterparts.

“I would like us to continue it as a golf course for as long as possible,” he said.

Hiawatha Golf Course was originally constructed in 1929 with the dredging of Lake Hiawatha and opened in 1934 with its first nine holes. It has operated has an 18-hole course since 1935.

Activity at the course has declined gradually in recent decades, following a trend among all the Park Board’s courses. The course hit a 20-year high for the number of rounds played in 2001 with 55,000 rounds, but that number fell to 14,000 in 2014 following the flood.

Meanwhile, over the past 20 years, the number of rounds played across the system has fallen by more than half. Besides Hiawatha, the board operates four other golf courses, though just Columbia Golf Club is within the city limits.

While the board says most of the people who play on the course are white men age 35-65, Hiawatha Golf Course supports several youth programs including The First Tee of the Twin Cities, which serves roughly 300 kids. Golf teams at three local high schools play on the course. In the winter, cross-country skiers use the property.