The long-simmering Park Board debate over the Hiawatha Golf Course in south Minneapolis found resolution Wednesday as commissioners approved an ambitious $43 million plan to reduce the course's holes from 18 to nine in order to improve its flood resiliency.
The board's vote is the final of several failed attempts by past and present commissioners split between the desire for an environmentally balanced golf course and one that primarily preserves 18 holes at a course with a historic following among Black golfers.
The redesign plan proposes creating a channel allowing stormwater to flow more naturally through the golf course, among an elevated nine holes and into Lake Hiawatha. The Park Board currently pumps more than 400 million gallons of groundwater a year out of the course — which sits 4 feet below lake level in the Minnehaha Creek floodplain — to prevent it from filling with water.
Proposed provisions to reduce the trash and fertilizer pollution that currently flows unabated into Lake Hiawatha have been lauded by park users pushing for better ecological management, including Black and Indigenous environmental advocates.
"I am for a compromise … as someone from the North Side, as a Black woman," urged activist Roxxanne O'Brien, who's in favor of the redesign. "It's pretty clear that there's been a lot of harms done to not only the environment but to Native American people as well as Black people. And if you look through your history, you will know that the problems didn't begin with us. It began with racist policies that you guys are now determined to make a different decision on today."
Opponents of the plan include golfers and supporters of historic preservation. The originally all-Black Upper Midwest Bronze golf tournament is played at Hiawatha, and the course is popular with many African-American golfers.
"I'm representing Solomon Hughes' family; we are against the master plan," said Solomon Hughes Jr., son of the African-American golf champion after whom the Hiawatha Golf Course clubhouse was recently renamed. "The master plan represents a reduction in historic and ongoing play of golf, reduction of establishing skills for all levels of golf … as well as reducing a championship golf course that's been available in the community since the 1930s."
Last month, the golf advocacy organization Bronze Foundation applied for the Hiawatha Golf Course to be listed in the National Register of Historic Places. If the National Park Service determines the course eligible, the Park Board would be required to surmount additional regulatory hurdles in order to enact changes.
"Today is the culmination of the longest planning process that I've been involved in as a park commissioner," Steffanie Musich — whose district includes the Hiawatha Golf Course — said ahead of the vote. "I'm not a fan of political theater. At this point, I don't believe an argument I can make this evening will have any influence over my colleagues' decisions. We have a choice to make tonight to either let the status quo stand or choose to begin to adapt to our changing climate. I will be choosing adaptation."
The final vote was 6-3. Commissioners Musich, Elizabeth Shaffer, Tom Olsen, Becky Alper, Cathy Abene and Meg Forney voted yes. Thompson, Billy Menz and Alicia D. Smith voted no.
The board will next seek a golf course architect with expertise in managing water issues and creating environmentally sound golf experiences that introduce the sport to youth.
"Tonight, some of us will feel excitement, and others of us will feel disappointment, and I don't like that … because at the foundation, I believe our parks bring us together," Shaffer said. "I remain inspired by the complete and utter investment of time, energy and thought that residents on both sides of this issue have contributed to the discussion. And I think we should be proud because people really care about our cities and our parks."