Is Sale of City Driving Range Just the Start in Duluth?

There may be a fire sale getting underway in Duluth as officials prepare to unload one city-owned property in the throes of the financial fallout due to the pandemic. The first item up for grabs? A prime parcel overlooking Duluth Harbor that currently serves as the driving range at the Enger Park Golf Course, whose sizable annual subsidies from taxpayers were already under scrutiny before Covid-19.

A likely developer has been selected to come up with a plan for the driving range space with the usual strings attached by the city, according to the Duluth paper.

[Adam Fulton, deputy director of Duluth’s planning and development division] said city staff are optimistic a “fairly aspirational” site plan will emerge.

“We want to highlight our recreational amenities,” he said, noting the site’s proximity not only to the golf course but to Enger Park, the Duluth Traverse and the Superior Hiking Trail.

“This is a really incredible site. It’s got beautiful views of the bay, the lake and the bluffs to the west. So, in this type of location, we believe there is the opportunity for some redevelopment,” Fulton said.

The future of Duluth’s other municipal course also remains very much in limbo. The city has solicited development proposals for a 50 acre swath of Lester Park Golf Course, which also perpetually runs red ink.

Lester Park Golf Course has remained closed this season due to the pandemic and the financial hardships that have befallen the city as a result.

Whether the Lester Park course will reopen next year remains unclear, according to Jim Filby Williams, director of Duluth’s parks, properties and libraries.

“If you were to ask me about the city’s capacity to open any given park asset in 2021 or 2022 or 2023 at this historical moment, it would be very difficult for me to make credible, unqualified commitments. We’re in a uniquely uncertain and difficult moment,” he said.

Meantime the future of another city-subsidized attraction, Spirit Mountain, hangs in the balance. One of the options on the table? Selling it, according to the Star Tribune.

Duluth spends about $1.1 million in tourism taxes on the mountain every year.

At that level of support, the mountain is able to generate enough cash to sustain its operations but cannot keep up with deferred maintenance and needed capital investments.

The task force will start meeting later this month and look at a variety of options to get the mountain out of a near-constant state of financial stress, including leasing or selling the operation or increasing public support. A recommendation is due in February.

In addition, the Duluth Monitor recently pointed out that bond payments for numerous additional ventures propped up by Duluth’s tourist tax also face financial risk.

In addition to the AMSOIL bonds ($40.635 million), the city uses tourism tax to pay off bonds for Spirit Mountain’s water line ($2.1 million), Wade Stadium improvements ($2.3 million), the DECC seawall rehabilitation ($4.45 million), the Grand Avenue Chalet ($7 million), and St. Louis River Corridor projects ($13.6 million)—a total of $70 million in construction bonds supported by tourism taxes.

No wonder the city plans to sell off the Enger Park Golf Course driving range. The next few months could determine whether it’s a one-time offering or the start of a fire sale.