Southern Minn. residents fight to save state park golf course
The smell of manure from a nearby farm wafted in last week as Randy Krzmarzick walked down the seventh fairway at Fort Ridgely State Park.
“It all comes together out here,” he said as an eagle circled overhead and a strong wind rustled tall prairie grass where wildflowers will soon bloom.
For him, the golf course represents a perfect escape — and a way to lure visitors. To the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources, it’s an amenity the agency can no longer afford. It has slated the course for closure.
The competing visions have set up a showdown between a determined group of local residents and the state bureaucracy. And state lawmakers got tugged into the fight, which appears to be coming to a head in a way that buys the course more time.
Krzmarzick grows corn and soybeans on land near Sleepy Eye, Minn., that has been in his family since 1896. The new grandfather is fond of Fort Ridgely and its golf course, where he’s been coming since he was a kid.
“This is a pretty spectacular hole,” he said walking up to a favorite spot, the eighth hole. “And now you walk around back up there and there’s a path through the trees to get to the other side. It’s a really challenging hole. You look over on the other side there’s a cemetery.”
Yes, a cemetery. Fort Ridgely was a Civil War-era army outpost. The nine-hole golf course came later. It wends around the old stone fort and other landmarks where they’ve co-existed for 90 years.
Last spring, the DNR announced the course was closing, because it no longer fit with the department’s strategic mission and with direction from the Legislature to stretch its dollars.
In 2015, according to the DNR, it cost $50,000 more to maintain the course than was collected in greens fees. The number of rounds played fell from a peak of 4,693 in 2009 after a pricey renovation to 2,547 last year.
“The high operating costs of Fort Ridgely and the low level of use caused us to start to rethink its future,” Parks and Trails Division Deputy Director Philip Leversedge told state lawmakers recently.
The plan was to plant the course over with native vegetation, to upgrade camping facilities and to highlight the park’s horseback riding instead.
It came as a gut punch to Krzmarzick and the Friends of Fort Ridgely group he belongs to, who had little warning it was coming. And they soon came up with an offer: They’d partner with the nearby city of Fairfax and take over the golf course.
City administrator Marcia Siebert-Volz says the course is a tourism draw and important to the small town’s economic vitality. And she says people are concerned that if the golf course goes away, the park itself would wither.
“We’re afraid because they’ve already cut back on maintenance issues in the park,” she said. “We don’t want that to occur where it’s just a huge wayside rest.”
A fundraising campaign for needed fixes has generated about $70,000 in pledges so far.
But talks bogged down late last year, and the DNR moved ahead with the closure. Mentions of golf were stripped from park signs. White-topped stakes were hammered into the ground where sprinkler heads would be dug up.
Undeterred, the local contingent enlisted Rep. Tim Miller, R-Prinsburg, and other area legislators.
“These small communities need every asset they can,” Miller said. “And something as simple as a golf course — it’s a nine-hole golf course near Fairfax — but this is really important for their economic development for the communities to rally around.”
Miller and other lawmakers advanced bills this year forcing the DNR to negotiate a low-cost lease, an alcohol license and other accommodations. The measure wound up this spring in big budget bills vital to DNR operations. Suddenly, negotiations intensified over a five-year plan to keep the course open.
“By no means do we want to strong-arm the DNR. I believe we needed to kind of show them we were serious.” Miller said.
There hasn’t been much resistance in the Legislature. But Sen. Kari Dziedzic, DFL-Minneapolis, is raising concerns about whether a Fort Ridgely deal would be consistent with an operating agreement her city has to run the Fort Snelling Golf Course.
Sixteen percent of Fort Snelling’s gross sales go back to the state on top of an annual lease fee, according to the DNR. It is likely to be less at Fort Ridgely; the bill now part of budget negotiations would cap the state’s cut to eight percent of greens fees and make clear a state park pass isn’t required to play.
“I don’t think it’s fair to my taxpayers if they are paying a higher or different rate than someplace else, just like someplace else shouldn’t pay higher than Minneapolis,” she said.
The Fort Ridgely course is hilly. The drop-off from the first tee box is so steep it doubles as a sledding hill. Some suspect the terrain might explain the trouble attracting more golf patrons.
Motorized golf carts haven’t been allowed, and local boosters are hoping they will be after an archaeological review.
The DNR isn’t commenting on negotiations, other than to say things have been progressing well and no contract is final. A deal with the DNR could be signed as soon as this week. If it is, the scramble will be on to get the course in shape for a May re-opening.
Krzmarzick realizes the hard work has just begun.
“I’ve said to friends here quite a bit the last few weeks, we’re now the dog that caught the car,” he says with a laugh, “and what are we going to do with it?”