On May 18, 2017 I participated in the public forum, hosted by the Minneapolis Parks and Recreation Board (MPRB), about the future of the Hiawatha Golf Course. It was interesting, eye-opening, and frustrating. For those unfamiliar with the issue of the golf course, the concise explanation is that the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources (DNR) has limits on the volume of ground and storm water that can be pumped. Because much of the Hiawatha Golf Course lies below the water table and is a natural wetland, the MPRB must pump much more water than permitted to keep it dry enough to play golf. Thus far, the DNR has accommodated the excess pumping with temporary permits. Although these may be made permanent, most people involved in the project appear to agree that the DNR will not take that route. If the volume of pumped water is limited to the DNR guidelines, it will not be feasible to maintain an 18 hole golf course on the site. The Hiawatha Golf Course will be dead. At the moment it is on life support. Kept viable by pumps and pesticides. The point of the forum and all the others over the last 2 years since the devastating flood in 2014, was to determine what will be done with its corpse. Project manager and assistant superintendent Michael Schroeder presented 3 options that have been highlighted by the working group. Alternative A is a revamped 18 Hole Golf Course and Alternatives B1 and B2 are restored wetlands including different configurations of multi-use amenities. See the details here. The main difference between Alternatives A and B is the volume of water pumped. But the technical, legal, and regulatory details are not the focus of this post.
The public forum was conducted by randomly assigning attendees to a subgroup for discussion of the Alternatives. I participated in a subgroup of 10 that was comprised of 7 golf enthusiasts (Alternative A supporters) and 3 advocates of wetland restoration (Alternative B supporters). I support Alternative B1. Dissension within the group began with the introductions, primarily driven by two people that expressed their absolute disgust for the Alternative B ideas relating to multi-use and ecological benefits because they considered such notions ridiculous. Their distaste for the process by which the organizers hoped the meeting would be conducted – and the MPRB in general – made it clear that any serious discussion would be very hard to facilitate. Of the remaining golf course supporters, 4 were physically separated at one end of the rectangular table and they discussed park and city history among themselves for the rest of the meeting. One advocate of Alternative A was open to discussion, but mainly focused on emphasizing his perspective that because the President of the MPRB is married to a potential contractor that might be hired to design and build Alternatives B, the whole thing was a scam meant to enrich that family. Myself and the other 2 Alternative B fans sat on one side of the table directly across from the 2 disgusted golfers and the young man willing to discuss the potential corruption of the MPRB, who was the son of the most vocal and negative of the disgusted ones. It would be an understatement to say that the discussion did not go well. I admit that I did little to turn the discussion in a positive direction. I opted for confrontation by emphasizing the statistics suggesting that golf is an elitist sport popular with an aging demographic that is no longer viable enough to justify setting aside such a large parcel of public land. I convinced no one, but I sincerely doubt that any argument no matter how kindly presented would have swayed them. Likewise, there was no viable way to convince me that anything more than a 3 hole training course would be tolerable at Hiawatha. When the sub-groups gave their presentations at the end of the meeting it was clear that most were hobbled by the same polarization as ours. One presenter from another sub-group blamed this division on the MPRB and the process used to elicit public input. I do not agree. The split in public opinion is the reality. The public forums simply revealed it.
Despite the argument and division there were more than a few points of agreement and common ground, albeit not directly relevant to the discussion the MPRB hoped to stimulate among the participants. Most pressing was the agreement that no matter what the MPRB decides to do with the park, preventing or mitigating basement flooding in the neighborhood must be a result of the renovation. The most distressing of these was the sense, on both sides, that the public forums were a sham; a dog and pony show staged to make it appear as though the MPRB was considering public input, while they made decisions based on corruption and/or influence of lobbyists behind the scenes. The most encouraging point of agreement was that the use toxic pesticides and chemical fertilizers by the MPRB on the site, whether a golf course or a food forest, be ended. Another important piece of common ground was the idea that the park system has an educational role, especially for children and youth. A number of the golfers were concerned that the training and school programs that Hiawatha hosts would be lost or relocated to a course too far away to benefit local kids. The wetland restoration alternatives, especially those that include urban farm and food forest projects, offer important educational opportunities, too. Programs teaching kids (of all ages) how the natural systems in the park work to moderate flooding, provide habitat and food for humans and non-humans, as well as clean and maintain the water in the connected lakes are critical components of the proposed multi-use alternatives. The restoration of the wetland ecosystem as the site recovers from nearly 9 decades of abuse would provide a real world example of how humans can learn to work with nature rather than against it. Given the climate challenges facing humanity in the near future teaching the next generation to understand and appreciate the natural world seems so much more important than teaching them to play golf. I sincerely hope that the MPRB, the city of Minneapolis, and the people with which I share this land will begin to understand that the impending closure of Hiawatha Golf Course is more an opportunity than a tragic loss. In much the same way as fallen trees and deceased animals become the fodder for new life, the Hiawatha Golf Corpse will be reclaimed by the Earth as new life and new knowledge are nourished by its remains.
The MPRB plans one more public forum before the Board takes their decision in July. Stay tuned.