Community Survey for Phalen Golf Course Reuse

Phalen Golf Course and Park


The Phalen Golf Course is an 18-hole course that is described as “a par 70 at 6,100 yards from the back tees with a rating of 67.5 and a slope of 116.” If you’re anything like me, that makes almost no sense.

The booking website lists these fees:

  • $25 during the bulk of the day
  • $19 after 4:00pm
  • $15 after 6:00pm

Tee times are approximately every 8 minutes, and 1-4 players can sign up per tee time. That adds up to 100 tee times, so there could be a maximum of 400 people playing golf each day (if they all go in groups of 4). There are further restrictions:

  • Each player must have a bag, and at least four clubs
  • Youth under seven years of age are not permitted on the course
  • Youth 7-12 must be accompanied by a parent

These two points bring up important questions about accessibility. Can nearby residents afford to go? If it were free, does this kind of game provide too little supply for the demand it might draw? How “accessible” is parkland if it excludes families with children under 7?

And if the conclusions to these questions are that golf is a bad choice for public park land, what are the alternatives?

Other Places to Golf

Here are other St. Paul golf courses, nearby Ramsey County courses, and the nearby private course:

Phalen Golf Course (built in 1917)
Hillcrest Country Club (1921)
Highland Golf Course (1926)
Keller Golf Course (1929)
Como Golf Course (1929)
Goodrich Golf Course (1957)

A map of nearby courses for reference:

These three alternative courses are all within 3-4 miles of Phalen Golf Course – a quick drive further for all but the few possible people who bike their (“at least four”) clubs and bag to the course.

Golf Courses Running in the Red

According to an MPR article, Como and Phalen golf courses lost $400,000 in 2013. That’s when the city considered privatizing them. They decided to outsource the management of the courses to Prom Management Group, who had a strategy to increase concessions and golfing revenues without increasing fees.

In relation to a failing Phalen Golf Course, City Council Member (and nongolfer) Dan Bostrom was quoted in the East Side Review (2013) as saying, “We do a lot of things in the city that don’t necessarily make money.” He listed off things like maintaining Phalen Regional Park and city recreation centers. “You could call all of these losing propositions if you were looking at them from a strictly financial perspective.”

In the same article, a representative of the Parks Department asserted, “The golf courses are a hobby, not a core value (of the city).” The president of the District 5 board at that time said the highest priority of residents was “to make sure that the green space stays in the neighborhood.”

Saint Paul City Charter

There is a specific section in the City Charter of Saint Paul regarding the “Disposal or diversion of park property.” There is a high bar for changing the use of current park land:

  • A Parks Commission recommendation
  • A public hearing
  • A 2/3 vote by the City Council
  • An assessment to make sure the city gets at least the value of the land
  • Proceeds from diversion or disposal must go to additional park land
  • All land must be replaced elsewhere with similar land, preferably in the same planning district

Thus, it is possible to develop park land for a non-parks use, but it doesn’t really make a lot of sense unless current park land is especially suited to another use, and a park could be better situated nearby.

Payne-Phalen Demographics

The Phalen Golf Course is situated inside the Payne-Phalen planning district. Here are some of its demographics:

Close to 30% of residents are below the poverty level.

Facebook Groups Survey

When I became curious about people’s attitudes toward the golf course, I posted this survey in four Facebook groups:


East St Paul – 20,760 Members
Positively East Side – 682 Members
East Side Action Network – 347 Members
Railroad Island Task Force – 127 Members

It was my first time using Survey Monkey, so I didn’t realize it would limit me to 100 responses. I also mistakenly made question 5 a multiple choice question with a single answer when I meant to allow multiple answers.

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Comments included:

  • Running
  • Walking
  • Ice skating
  • Walking dog, cross through to lake
  • I run around it every day
  • Biking and walking.
  • I like to walk on the trails next to the course
  • I bike around it
  • Walking
  • In the club house
  • snow shoeing
  • Snowshoeing

(It appears some of these people conflated the golf course with the rest of the park)

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Other responses included:

  • Nice restaurant at the golf course
  • Nature!!!!
  • More activities for families, more trails, maybe a water park
  • No development! More outdoor recreation
  • Community garden spaces
  • No housing we need your green space in St. Paul!!!!!!!!!!!
  • Disc golf
  • And keep the winter skiing! Please!!!
  • dog park, mobile home park for cheaper living area
  • Public food forest!
  • Community Theater building. Farmer’s Market location. Community education center. Multi-Cultural museum of our city. Indoor sports facility: soccer/basketball courts/track/community swimming pool/ice skating rink/other
  • Off-leash dog park
  • Garden space
  • Nature preserve
  • Keep it open for outside activities for the public.
  • Food Forest like is being talked about at Hiawatha in Minneapolis
  • Ball fields
  • Food Forest, Urban gardening, Educational land/nature preserve
  • a pump track
  • woods or prairie
  • Mixed housing

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  • leave it alone!!!!!!
  • Increase outdoor activities. Bring back winter sports similar to Como golf. Lessons. Warming shelters 
  • Community garden opportunities
  • I would NOT approve of another use. Even if one does not play golf, you get the benefit of the open area with mature trees (some over 100 years old)
  • Housing for well-heeled young adults, no low income use
  • All of the above
  • I wanted to check all these (except None) but I had to pick one

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  • This question says I have to check a box missing other. I am mixed and this question and house hold income are a way to say people think a certain way because they are “rich” and “racist” and they just don’t understand
  • Not white American
  • American-Mexican
  • Italian
  • German

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The Phalen Golf Course is located within the 55106 zip code. These are the self-reported zip codes of the survey respondents:

55106 – 74 (St. Paul between Payne and White Bear Ave) – 20 want golf to stay
55119 – 10 (St. Paul east of White Bear Ave / Maplewood) – 3 want golf to stay
55130 – 6 (St. Paul between 35E & Payne Ave) – one want golf to stay
55102 – 3 (West 7th) – none want golf to stay
55109 – 2 (Maplewood & North St. Paul) – one wants golf to stay
55128 – 1 (Oakdale) – doesn’t want golf to stay
55105 – 1 (Macalester Groveland) – doesn’t want golf to stay
55116 – 1 (Highland Park) – doesn’t want golf to stay
55117 – 1 (North End / Como / Little Canada) – doesn’t want golf to stay
55124 – 1 (Apple Valley) – doesn’t want golf to stay

Some observations

Although Payne-Phalen is only 35% white, 94% of the survey respondents self-identified as white. This was a big surprise to me. My assumption is that non-white residents are less likely to want the golf course there. This survey was not representative enough to reflect that, but it did give me a better picture of what some of the white population of the East Side thinks. (It also shows who’s using East Side Facebook groups.)

Green Space:
Just like the East Side Review article reported in 2013, the people want “to make sure that the green space stays in the neighborhood.” Housing was not a popular replacement and even shops got only 18%. “Only a golf course” was only the choice of 25% of respondents, however. The overwhelming majority want to see a different kind of green space. 64% want “open park space,” 62% want “walking trails,” and 52% want “bike trails.” It’s likely a lot of the same people clicked these options, but remember that a whopping 75% did not click “only a golf course.”

Zip Codes:
I was a little surprised by how many respondents really were from the 55106 zip code, which includes parts of Payne-Phalen and the Greater East Side. Of those who live further away I was also surprised that most of them also didn’t want to see it remain a golf course. Some think that the golf course is financially beneficial to the neighborhood because it draws people to our businesses. It’s possible that a more accessible nature space could be a more powerful draw to a less limited group of people.

A Food Forest… and Everything Else!
Several commenters mentioned having a “food forest” like what is envisioned by some for the Hiawatha Golf Course in Minneapolis. This wasn’t even on my radar. While Phalen Golf Course is unlikely to be a wetland, it seems like aspects of this idea could still work. What’s inspiring is that almost all of the ideas could be combined. The one use that takes up all the land is golfing. Without golfing one could have a “food forest,” walking trails, biking trails, community gardens, a dog park, disc golf, and the whole array of winter activities. None of the (mostly white) respondents mentioned the popular Hmong games Sepak Takraw or Tuj Lub, both of which could have courts in this space. With golfing and its manicured greens it’s hard to include other warm weather activities.

Public Services and Money:
Council Member Dan Bostrom made a good point in 2013 that we don’t see public parks as money losers, but the fact that golf courses were losing money was a big deal. Which public goods do we provide for free and why? We charge for pools, transit, golf, and some parking. We don’t charge for public parks, libraries, or schools. At first I wondered if some public goods are not free because it helps to manage high demand. A friend suggested it might be due to high operating costs.

Space Considerations:
Regardless of the money question for me it all comes down to space. None of the other public goods (aside from parking) take up so much space but serve so few people. Even if these golf courses were profitable it wouldn’t mean they were any more accessible for the majority of residents. Do we want green space for the sake of green space even if we’re not able to use it? Personally I’ve never considered the golf course to be part of the park. In warm weather it’s closed off to me and people like me (non-golfing & non-paying).

Eric Saathoff

About Eric Saathoff

Eric Saathoff is a public school teacher living in the Payne-Phalen neighborhood of St. Paul. He is a regular walker, cyclist, transit user, and driver with his wife and three young children. Eric serves on the Payne-Phalen Community Council and the St Paul Transportation Committee.