Park Board votes to reduce pumping at Hiawatha golf course

Photo courtesy Minneapolis Park and Recreation Board

Park commissioners voted July 25 to reduce groundwater pumping at Hiawatha Golf Club, a move that will necessitate changing the course’s current 18-hole configuration.

The Minneapolis Park and Recreation Board’s vote clarifies the direction it would like to see from a community group it tasked with studying potential futures for the South Minneapolis park property, which park officials say isn’t likely to see an 18-hole course in a new plan.

The 6-2 vote on the resolution, an amended motion crafted by citywide Commissioner LaTrisha Vetaw, will mean a new plan for Hiawatha will include at least a nine-hole course, though other configurations with more holes may be possible. It also included language making sure there will be some formal recognition of the course’s history of black golfers.

“There is a huge legacy that goes along with my community that we will not lose because of anything. I will try everything I can so we can preserve that legacy,” she said.

The action affirms a previous board vote to reduce pumping at the course to 94 million gallons a year from 262 million gallons a year, which will dramatically alter the site as wetlands retake some of the property. The Park Board has engaged a consultant, including a golf course architect, to study what course configurations are possible with less land available for golf.

The outlook seems unlikely to Assistant Superintendent of Planning Services Michael Schroeder, who reminded commissioners several times that he does not have a degree in designing golf courses.

“When we reduce pumping, it seems to me that it would be very difficult for an 18-hole course,” he said.

Other possibilities exist for golf at Hiawatha, he said. The resolution passed by the board means at least a nine-hole course will be included on a future master plan for the site, but Schroeder said some PGA professionals have said a nine-hole course with a three-hole loop could be a desirable option as well.

“We’ll be exploring a range of opportunities,” he said.

Vetaw’s resolution added a direction to the planning process to include some recognition of the course’s history of black golfers. Schroeder said the board’s consultant team has always included a golf architect and someone who could research the course’s cultural impacts. It’s unclear what interpretive or other opportunities the board and its Citizen Advisory Committee will consider.

“I think (the resolution) aligns well with the direction the (board’s community group) and staff would have been moving even without this,” he told commissioners. “I think this does introduce a significant degree of clarity to the work they need to be doing over the next year.”

Several commissioners praised the amended resolution for its compromise between several groups, including golfers who have vocally opposed changing the course, local residents who fear flooding near Hiawatha and others who would like to see the site revert back to a wetland or have another use.

“It’s a compromise. It’s what government does, (which) is work with everybody and hear all voices and come up with a solution that may not be perfect but is one that honors the past and looks toward the future,” said District 4 Commissioner Jono Cowgill.

Commissioner Kale Severson (District 2) and Londel French (at-large) voted against the resolution. Commissioner AK Hassan (District 3) was absent for the vote.

Severson said they shouldn’t take any options off the table for the board’s citizen committee.

“I don’t feel like this is a compromise. I feel like this leans one way as opposed to the other,” he said.

Recent planning for the course began following a 2014 storm with record rainfall that flooded the course, temporarily shutting it down. Pumping millions of gallons of groundwater and stormwater runoff from the site keeps the course open and protects nearby homes, but staff have said it isn’t a long-term solution for the ecology of the park. The board has said that Hiawatha Golf Club will remain open in its current state until there’s a new plan is in place.

Commissioner Steffanie Musich, whose District 5 includes the course, said she’s had “hundreds, if not thousands of conversations” with constituents on the future of the course and homeowners who have seen or are worried about flood damage.

“It’s been a long road. It’s been an evolving topic,” she said.

Musich said it’s not a “realistic promise” for the Park Board to say residents won’t see flooding if the area sees significant storms.

“I cannot stress enough that we want to ensure that homes have the same level of protection they have now from groundwater penetration in the affected area,” she said.

The Park Board is at the beginning of what is expected to be a roughly five-year timeframe of redeveloping Hiawatha.

Schroeder said the board’s citizen group will come back to the board with its recommended plan for Hiawatha in the second or early third quarter of 2019. Before then, he said park staff will develop concepts for the future of the site based off public and committee feedback.

The process will then move to engaging residents, identifying funding sources, planning and designing the park and getting the necessary approvals.