Danger: golf in progress.

Minneapolis Should Get Out of the Golf Game

Danger: golf in progress.

Golf is a game. It’s entertainment. “It’s a good walk spoiled,” Mark Twain said, apocryphally. Could government provide a service that’s less essential? It’s hard to imagine.

Nevertheless, the Minneapolis Park and Recreation Board (MPRB) runs six golf courses. Once upon a time, these courses made money, but those days are gone. The MPRB recently got a report from a Golf Convergence, a consulting firm, that contained some stark truths. Since 2000, the number of rounds played at public courses has plummeted 46%, and the courses need $14 million dollars of renovation just to maintain the status quo. To turn things around, the report said the Park Board would have to spend $34.5 million on the courses.

Minneapolis should try to get out of the golf business.

It’s not that I think that everything should be left to the free market. I love parks and libraries! Sometimes public ownership make sense. But for a lot of things, private ownership is the best system, and people should pay for what they use. An activity should be subsidized (or taxed) in proportion to how it benefits (or harms) bystanders.

And what are the external effects of golf courses? The vast, manicured lawns are nice to look at, but the herbicides, fungicides, pesticides, and fertilizers wreak havoc on other vulnerable organisms (sometimes humans). They use a stupefying amount of water. The 2.5 billion gallons of water used each day to irrigate the world’s golf courses is more than enough to support every person in Asia. The external benefits of the beautiful courses are mostly captured by the folks who own nice homes nearby. Municipal golf courses are good for golfers and nearby property owners, and bad for pretty much everyone else. This is all to say that it doesn’t look like golf courses’ net effect on society justifies a subsidy.

It’s not about being pro-golf or anti-golf. This is how the consultants at Golf Convergence framed the issue:

“To what extent should a governmental entity subsidize the leisure of a recreational asset that is utilized by less than 15% of the population whose average age is 41.5 years of age, who have median household income of $85,800, and 80% of which are Caucasian?”

What a nice, pointy question! But the economist in me wants to pare down the question to something like this: “When should we use city-owned land for golf and not something else?” A thrifty response would be, “If and only if using the land as a golf course is more valuable than any alternative.”

It’s important to consider all possibilities. If you just look at the revenue and expenses of a golf course, then you’ll only see part of the picture. When we choose to devote land to playing golf, we’re giving up the profit that would come from the best alternative. That’s what economists call the opportunity cost of a venture. Even if the city golf courses were financially sustainable, we might be leaving money on the table if there were a better use for them.

golfer with caddy

18th Century beknickered golfer with caddy in a tricorne hat.

So in order to understand the real cost of maintaining expansive, expensive, pseudo-public parks, we have to consider what else we could be doing with the property. How about building homes, offices, shops, restaurants, bars, churches, small parks, and schools? If you hadn’t heard, Mayor Hodges wants Minneapolis’s population to grow to 500,000. “Where are all these people going to go?” the skeptics have asked. “Have you noticed these big chunks of empty city-owned land?” I reply.

Some courses could even be sites for transit-oriented development. Of Minneapolis’s six public golf courses, three are within a half-mile of planned or existing train stations. Meadowbrook is pretty close to the proposed Louisiana station of the Southwest LRT, the Blue Line extension has a planned stop at the Theodore Wirth course, and the Fort Snelling Course is right next to a Blue Line station.

How feasible is this? I’m not sure, to be honest. I have no experience in the financial or legal aspects of selling public land. But for Minneapolis to grow, we need to choose which of the barriers to growth we push against. Do we remove some freeways and rebuild a few city blocks? Do we relax zoning codes to allow taller towers? Do we change our tax structure to discourage surface parking lots? All these ideas have merit, but it sounds like it would be easier just to sell a golf course or two.

Minneapolis has a history of subsidizing sports until it hurts. I get that. But if Minneapolis’s interest in providing an “entry door” to an unpopular sport trumps its resolve to become a more vibrant city, I might as well quit this whole urbanism thing and join the winning side. Maybe the Twin Cities Badminton Club needs a lobbyist.

Photo by flickr user Ro’tten under creative commons license.



Scott Shaffer

About Scott Shaffer

Scott Shaffer works for a nonprofit community development corporation in Minneapolis. He has a master's degree in urban and regional planning from the University of Minnesota. He and his wife live in the Powderhorn Park neighborhood with their daughter and two Siamese cats.

32 thoughts on “Minneapolis Should Get Out of the Golf Game

  1. Matt SteeleMatt Steele

    Good article, but I’m concerned about losing green space that has been owned by the public for over a century.

    Subsidize golf? No. Protect green space in our city that adds value to neighborhoods? I hope so. I am two blocks from Hiawatha. I golf and xc ski there, all without getting in car. I don’t expect my recreation subsidy to continue, but I do expect the city to preserve a public asset (green space) that contributes to my property value. Unless we decide we’ll also develop Powderhorn Park, Loring Park, etc as well.

  2. Scott ShafferScott Shaffer Post author

    I like parks. They’re free to the public! Powderhorn’s May Day parade and Loring’s gay pride festival couldn’t happen on golf courses.

    If you agree that we shouldn’t subsidize golf, why don’t you think we should leave the supply of golf courses up to the market?

  3. Sean Hayford OlearySean Hayford Oleary

    I’m not sure developing golf courses is especially compatible with the goal of increasing Minneapolis’s population, since only two of the six courses you mention are in the City of Minneapolis. (Not that we don’t have an interest in development and density throughout the first ring as well, but it doesn’t help Minneapolis’s numbers.)

    Even if this is a priority, they’re limited in what they could do, because they have to work with another municipality to make it happen. I’m not even sure if I agree that they should necessarily get out of the golf business because they’re losing money. The point of government is to lose money — just to lose a sustainable amount, on things of value. I assume other parts of Theodore Wirth Park do not turn a profit. Why should we abandon golfers but not, say, cross country skiers?

    All that said, I would pay good money to see some of the residents of the Interlachen area of Edina told that Minneapolis plans to redevelop the Meadowbrook Golf Course into a high-density, mixed-use area.

      1. Sean Hayford OlearySean Hayford Oleary

        I’m not sure that broad, basically rhetorical statements require citations, Scott. All I’m getting at is that government services in general do not turn a profit. If we expected government services to turn a profit, we would not need taxes to pay for those services.

        But in any case, that statement is not really the point of my comment. Why cut back on golf, but not baseball diamonds or cross country ski trails or whatever else that might not have user fees to pay for it?

        I’m fine with cutting back on golf, but there should be an articulable reason why we single out golf courses.

        1. Alex CecchiniAlex Cecchini

          “I’m fine with cutting back on golf, but there should be an articulable reason why we single out golf courses.”

          – Total amount of space required for a single golf hole relative to other public spaces (land opportunity cost)
          – Resources required to operate/maintain golf courses vs. other uses (financial oppty cost)
          – Flexibility of other spaces – baseball diamonds can accommodate: baseball, softball, kickball, tee-ball, soccer/football/lacrosse fields in the outfields, etc. Golf courses require the length of a 150-400 yard course to be empty for the game to work. CC ski trails allow for hiking, running, snowshoeing, etc
          – Financial barrier to entry to participate in activities like baseball, soccer, football, basketball, etc: 1-3 pieces of equipment minimum

          I’ll agree that singling out golf doesn’t seem fair when we could easily question the value other public spaces provide nearby land-uses. However I’ll also agree that golf courses do seem to be the worst offenders of spending public dollars and lost opportunity costs.

          I’ll also disagree that government is supposed to lose money, by definition. Government should provide services that don’t turn a profit, but add value to people or land-uses enough to justify taxes to cover costs. Ie, break even. A baseball diamond that requires no money to participate in can still add value to the neighborhood around it enough to justify higher taxes to cover maintenance costs.

        1. Scott ShafferScott Shaffer Post author

          Nope! I’d say the point of government is to efficiently correct the failures of the free market. There are a lot (a LOT) of ways that the free market fails, but I don’t see “inadequate supply of golf courses” as one of them.

          1. John Norblom

            This conversation can not begin with the supply of golf courses or the purpose of government. The courses exist, no government supplied them, they were provided by the golfers. The courses exist and the land can not be developed.

    1. Adam MillerAdam

      Do cross country skiers need as big a subsidy, come with big environmental costs and have adequate (indeed significantly more popular) private suppliers of the necessary resource?

  4. Eric AnondsonEric Anondson

    Meadowbrook is outside the city limits, developing it won’t affect adding population to Minneapolis. But the fact it lies outside the city borders makes one wonder why keep it at all if it isn’t a money maker that brings in huge amounts to fund other park activity.

    That said, Meadowbrook can play a role in creating a bike connection. 44th is currently a on-street bike route all the way to Brookside Ave. Following pretty much the old street car line that ran all the way to Hopkins. Edina developed the land the streetcar occupied, but Hopkins turned the streetcar line into a trail from Excelsior to Blake.

    The visions is this: build a connection from the Lake Harriet to Hopkins again and Meadowbrook plays a role. Hopkins has a bike and pedestrian plan that proposes Goodrich through its Interlachan Park neighborhood as an on-street bike route as an extension of the existing 2nd-3rd street trail. A redeveloped Meadowbrook could extend the trail to connect to the streetcar remnant in Edina’s Todd Park directly to the terminus of the 44th street bike route.

    Voila, bike route from Mainstreet Hopkins to Linden Hills courtesy of Meadowbrook Golf Course disappearing as a golf facility.

  5. Bill LindekeBill Lindeke

    I think you can develop some of the land and keep green space and XX ski trails on some of the land. You get rid of the golf course, keep some green space, plant some trees, make a trail system for biking skiing and walking. Land along the edges would become VERY valuable. Develop and sell this land, voila tons of new property tax revenue for the city.

    (see my previous post on it here: https://streets.mn/2013/10/22/what-do-you-do-with-an-old-golf-course/)

    Cities aren’t supposed to be in it for profit, but they also have to keep an eye on the costs and opportunities that are out there. Scott’s quote about the demographics of people who play golf shouldn’t be overlooked. Right now, all of us in Minneapolis are subsidizing recreation for old, (relatively) wealthy, white people. Golf is still very popular in the media precisely because of this demographic, but cities have to make difficult choices about priorities. Should a city with many challenges and deep disparities be spending money on golf courses?

    Here are a few articles about the decline of golf:




    http://articles.orlandosentinel.com/2012-05-15/sports/os-future-of-golf-0513-20120515_1_new-golfers-national-golf-foundation-golf-channel), Golf takes too much time

    Ending the golf course subsidy and quasi-public land use waste makes sense fiscally, morally, demographically, and even from a recreation standpoint.

  6. Ron

    Golf isn’t the same game that people fell in love with in the Twin Cities. Starting in the mid 90s the USGA let manufacturers introduce clubs and balls that dramatically increased the distance the ball travels. As a result many courses had to expand their footprint to accommodate the new game. Courses began defending par with smaller greens, narrow fairways, more trees and deeper rough. It’s turned the sport of strategy, skill and using the ground to a game of bomb off the tee and gouge from the rough.
    So the problem isn’t the sport of golf, per say, it’s what’s happened to it (and the middle class).
    There are a number of ppl in the sport that are trying to get golf in the States back to how it used to be played. Strategy off the tee instead of having to hit to a narrow fairway. A ball that doesn’t go as far and curves. Walking! Playing FAST. Back to the Scotland Model (I might have just made that term up but it’s a bit of a Cycling Copenhagen model for golf).
    It’s too little too late for some public courses but golf is a centuries old game for good reason. I’d hate to see it go back to only being played by the monied few as it was when people felt the need to build these public courses dating back to the beginning of the last century.

      1. Ron

        That’s a tough one. I really like all of the Minneapolis public golf courses. They are affordable, walkable, and welcoming to beginners and families. I’d say they are closer to the sustainable community golf model that I think is worth preserving and improving. Clearly there is a limit to what we can go into the red on these places though that’s not for me to decide alone.

        Hiawatha 1934
        Gross National 1925
        Columbia 1919
        Meadowbrook 1926
        Theo Wirth 1916!

        Some thanks goes to golf and the men and women who built, maintained and supported these public courses for close to 100 years so someday we might carefully weight the option of turning these expansive parks in the heart of the city into more houses, apartments, shopping centers, gas stations and office buildings.

        1. Nathanael

          There are seriously six? I think the city can probably support one or two.

          The others may be useful as parks, as nature reserves, or for development, but there’s no way they’re all useful for golf courses.

          Someone should survey the golfers and find out which ones are the favorites.

  7. mplsjaromir

    Not the most convincing argument presented in this article. Minneapolis golf courses actually made money in 2013. A $35 million dollar upgrade would likely make the facilities quite profitable, albeit on events and not golf. Our Muni courses are unique and a part of the city’s heritage. (Except Ft. Snelling, which actually has a disc golf course overlaid on top the ball golf course and 90 degree doglegs.) I think its rich to characterize a sport with 26 million participants as unpopular.

    I get it that the sport mostly popular with the expense account crowd and the bluehairs. I will say there is a program called First Tee that reaches out to kids to teach the game. As far as I know the local snow shoeing, or bike polo groups do not offer anything that is similar. Not to mention golf is a competitive physical activity that one can reasonably do well into their golden years.

    My final thought would be, look at the city itself, do its leader’s really want it to grow? The city shot down a proposal to add real density in ‘Dinkytown’. The reason given by the ward’s council member? Nostalgia. Do not get your hopes up that the rose colored glasses wearing city leadership would ever give up green space for development.

  8. Scott ShafferScott

    “A $35 million dollar upgrade would likely make the facilities quite profitable”

    Huh. By my calculations, a $35 million upgrade would put the facilities $35 million in the red.

    1. MplsJaromir

      It called an investment. Which will make money down in the future. But I am not surprised that a David Foster Wallace fanboy is dense.

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  10. John Norblom

    Shame on you Scott Shaffer for your statement regarding what the consultant Golf Convergence reported, the report actually reported that the decline in rounds at City courses is due to poor management by the MPRB. That poor management came in the form of the decision not to spend the proceeds from golf fees to maintain the courses. Rather the consultant found that the MPRB had robbed the golf courses to pay for the debt from the fiasco known as the Neiman Sports Complex and allowed the golf courses to become pitifully run down.

    The consultant also reported that in their opinion, an opinion for which MPRB paid more than $50,000.00, the only reasonable course of action going forward, under present circumstances, is to spend the necessary money and keep the courses operating.

    1. Bill LindekeBill Lindeke

      I think Scott’s point is that the golf pie is shrinking, and that there’s increasing competition for the remaining golfers. With city courses barely making money as is (not just in Mpls but elsewhere too), spending $35M to become profitable isn’t being honest or smart about finances.

      That said, let’s avoid shaming and stick to debating the issues. Thanks.

      1. John Norblom

        Sorry about the shaming, just a bit of rhetoric from my childhood. However Scott’s reporting of what the consultant said is grossly deceptive. I think it would be important for anyone considering this issue to actually read the report. The popularity of golf goes up and down over the years but the 46% decrease in rounds at City courses is due to mismanagement not golf’s popularity. Also there are legal issues surrounding what can be done with property owned by MPRB and these sites are not available for development.
        One last thought, these courses were bought and paid for by the cities golfers. The money to purchase and develop land was borrowed and repaid with golf fees. Over the course of their history many hundreds of thousands of dollars in profits have come into the Minneapolis park budget from these fees. In the consultant’s opinion there are ample golfers to support these courses and that proper management can return them to a profitable status.
        We do not own the Parks in Minneapolis but rather we hold them in trust. Where would we get the right to destroy the heritage bequeathed us by these many generations of golfers?

        1. Bill LindekeBill Lindeke

          I’m curious what you think about those “decline in golf” articles I posted. Even if your assumptions about the financing of the courses are correct (and I’m not saying they’re not, just that I don’t have facts on it), at what point IF golf is in decline would you consider closing and re-allocating a course or two?

          Or do you predict a bounce back in golf populations and popularity?

          1. John Norblom

            I have not looked at them. Instead I watched the presentation given to the MPRB by their consultant. The study by Golf Convergence shows that there are plenty of golfers to support our city courses and that the Minneapolis system is a unique opportunity compared with other public systems.

            As to reallocation I stated in another post ;
            …these courses were bought and paid for by the cities golfers. The money to purchase and develop land was borrowed and repaid with golf fees…..We do not own the Parks in Minneapolis but rather we hold them in trust. Where would we get the right to destroy the heritage bequeathed us by these many generations of golfers?

            If you have specific reallocation scenarios I would be happy to comment.

              1. John Norblom

                I think it is important to note that the MPRB is an independent, elected, separate unit of government with taxing authority. Although the Mayor has veto power the MPRB can override a veto with a 2/3rds vote. By charter in order to sell land the board must declare the land abandoned and receive approval of a District Court judge.
                Privatizing is not selling but is rather hiring a private management firm. We already have a management entity in the MPRB who spent over $50,000.00 for a study of the situation and I think the MPRB should use the advise they paid for.

          2. MplsJaromir

            One thing you gotta remember is that golf got very popular starting in 1997. Tiger Woods winning The Masters was the reason why it happened. Tiger mania has subsided and it looks like golf is retreating to historical norms. A similar craze happened to tennis in the 1970s. I would say that golf is declining from abnormally high levels of popularity. Golf has been around longer than most games, there is reason. Golf has been sustainable in the city for generations, I think it can remain that way.

        2. Scott ShafferScott Shaffer Post author

          It’s part of a national trend that’s been going on for ten to fifteen years: “[T]he number of people who play 25 times a year or more fell to 4.6 million in 2005 from 6.9 million in 2000, a loss of about a third.

          “The industry now counts its core players as those who golf eight or more times a year. That number, too, has fallen, but more slowly: to 15 million in 2006 from 17.7 million in 2000, according to the National Golf Foundation.”


          That’s from 2008, and here’s a more recent piece from a 2011 issue of Golfweek: http://golfweek.com/news/2011/dec/12/october-report-shows-rounds-played-fell-again/

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