EDITORIAL: Let golf course be part of a greater (w)hole

·5 min read

Jun. 18—In November 2016, the City of Rochester released a large document entitled "Soldiers Field Park Master Plan Outline." This 42-page proposal, created with the assistance of two Minneapolis consulting firms, included four "Preliminary Concepts" for a possible redesign of the park.

One of those concepts retained the existing 18-hole golf course. Another shrunk the golf course to nine holes, while the other two eliminated golf entirely.

Six years later, we're down to just three preliminary concepts — one with 18 holes, one with nine, one without golf — so that's progress, right? At this rate, the actual work of redesigning and modernizing Soldiers Field Park will be completed the same year this year's high school graduates start signing up for senior golf leagues.

Yes, we know that haste makes waste, and we don't want Rochester to rush the planning for what could and should become the crown jewel in the city's parks system. Few cities have a 140-acre chunk of green space so near downtown, and Rochester has the opportunity to create something truly remarkable on land that 98 years ago was a pasture. The city needs to get this right, and it needs to get it right the first time.

But there's a difference between "Measure twice, cut once," and paralysis by analysis.

City leaders and parks officials have spent more than enough time gathering community feedback and hard data about the public golf course at Soldiers Field. The short, flat, walkable 18-hole layout is undeniably popular among seniors, beginners and less-skilled players, and for the past decade, these golfers have shown up and spoken up every time officials talked about reducing the course to nine holes or eliminating it altogether.

We get it. We see the value in a public, affordable, walkable golf course located in close proximity to high-density downtown housing, established residential neighborhoods and even a state university campus. Fifty years from now, we hope golfers are still shaking their heads after chunking approach shots into the Zumbro River.

But we also hope that 50 years from now, people are coming to Soldiers Field Park to play pickleball — a sport that continues to explode in popularity. We hope people are curling on both indoor and outdoor ice sheets.

We hope the park is home to an aquatic center that will give Rochester families a reason to stop driving to Kasson or Stewartville on hot summer days. We hope there's a well-manicured arboretum/botanical garden where visitors and residents alike can enjoy quiet walks on shady trails or simply sit on a bench and smell lilacs as they listen to gurgling fountains.

We hope there are more picnic shelters. We hope for a wide-open lawn where UMR students can toss a Frisbee or a football between classes. We hope there's a dog park.

To turn these hopes into reality, nine holes of the golf course will likely need to go away — and that's a trade the city should be willing to make.

The reality is that just 8% of the U.S. population plays golf, and Rochester currently has 63 city-maintained holes. Another half-dozen 18-hole layouts are available for public play in Rochester and the surrounding communities.

A recent study by the National Golf Foundation indicated that Rochester's city-owned golf courses are "producing activity and revenue well below the expected standard," and that Rochester has reached "a key moment in addressing the condition of facilities, as all four courses have significant capital needs."

While we don't expect city-owned golf courses to turn a profit, there is such a thing as responsible stewardship of taxpayer dollars. Rochester's golf courses are currently a drag on the city budget, and while the COVID-19 pandemic caused a sudden resurgence of golf's popularity, we wouldn't want the city to "double down" on golf based on the expectation that this resurgence will be permanent.

We accept the reality that it's time for Rochester reduce the amount of space and resources it devotes to golf, and eliminating nine holes at Soldiers Field is the right decision, especially if doing so creates new opportunities.

But we'd offer one caveat.

Rochester needs a big-picture vision of how its parks connect to and complement each other. That's especially true of what we'll call the "Big Three" parks, which include Silver Lake Park, Soldiers Memorial Field Park and Graham Park. All three are showing their age, and none of them currently come close to fulfilling their full potential as green spaces and recreational areas.

If and when Rochester commits to cutting nine holes from Soldiers Field Golf Course and creating a space that attracts a wider variety of users, the bulldozers shouldn't get busy until until the city knows at least the broad outlines of what will happen at Graham Park and Silver Lake Park. After all, some of the ideas currently being discussed for Soldiers Field Park might actually be better placed elsewhere.

The goal should be for people to see these three parks as parts of a well-thought-out whole, connected by a pedestrian trail that lets people walk or bike from the fairgrounds grandstand to the Soldiers Field Arboretum, then on to the splash pad at Silver Lake Park — all without having to worry about crossing a single street.

They will, however, still need to be alert for someone yelling "Fore!" after hooking a drive over the fence along South Broadway or Highway 14.