New Ulm Meeting DG041416

New Ulm resident Dan Brinkman, an avid golfer, suggested during Thursday's meeting about the planned closure of the golf course at Fort Ridgely State Park that the DNR’s data may not accurately reflect how many golfers actually use the course. Photo by Darren Gibbins

MANKATO — The large crowd of golfers at a Minnesota Department of Natural Resources meeting Thursday night seemed to be in the very deep rough at the start.

Not only were DNR officials showing no flexibility in their decision to shut down the 90-year-old golf course at Fort Ridgely State Park, they announced they'd set a date for the final rounds: July 6.

The focus of the meeting agenda was an explanation of the financial pressures that prompted the decision, potential new uses of the 40 acres devoted to the 9-hole course and other opportunities for the park midway between Fairfax and Sleepy Eye on Nicollet County's far-western point.

"We are constantly budget-challenged," said Phil Leversedge, deputy director of parks and trails at the DNR headquarters in St. Paul. "And what are we doing about that?"

The answers include looking closely at staffing, trying to reduce operational costs, focusing on the agency's traditional mandate of protecting and preserving natural resources, and recognizing the changing outdoor interests of younger generations.

"What has been our tradition is not our future," Leversedge said.

But even as he and other DNR officials attempted to make their opening presentation, people in the audience were stepping up to the tee.

"When will we be able to talk about saving the golf course?" one man yelled.

"How many of you here are interested in saving the golf course?" a second man asked to the crowd.

Virtually every person in the standing-room-only crowd at the New Ulm Civic Center raised a hand.

"We feel we need to focus on what's truly unique about Fort Ridgely," Leversedge said, mentioning the park's role in the U.S.-Dakota War.

"I think the golf course is what's unique," another man exclaimed.

Revenue from greens fees at the course, which was established in the 1920s and was subject to more than $2 million in improvements a decade ago, has been flat in recent years but operational expenses are rising.

The net loss for the course, not counting labor costs, reached $52,000 in 2015, according to financial figures presented to the crowd.

Several audience members disputed the numbers, saying that limited staffing at the park meant many golfers played without paying and questioning the premise that park facilities should be judged via a ledger book.

"I didn't know parks were supposed to make money," a man shouted.

Another, hearing that the course would be converted to prairie, wondered: "How much is that grass going to make for the park?"

As the DNR officials repeatedly asked to be allowed to finish their presentation before the public comment period started, one man leaned to the person next to him.

"You can tell you've got a roomful of Germans," he said.

And while it was a collection of golfers, all but a couple middle-aged or older, they began to look more like a hockey team peppering Leversedge with one slap shot after another. Randy Krzmarzick, a member of the board of directors of the Friends of Fort Ridgely group, said the reaction was predictable.

"I've yet to talk to one person, and I've talked to several hundred, that thinks this is a good idea," Krzmarzick said.

Speaking directly to Leversedge, he also said the DNR needs to admit it's moving too fast.

"This conversation needs to back up," Krzmarzick said. "Go to St. Paul and tell those people this needs to slow down."

That the public input was being sought well after a final decision had been made was a common criticism Thursday night.

"Where was the request for input a year ago?" one man asked.

"That's why we're here tonight," Leversedge said, prompting widespread derisive laughter in the room.

And Leversedge conceded he'd heard similar complaints from state lawmakers about the lack of public hearings prior to the announcement about the closing. In particular, Rep. Clark Johnson and Sen. Kathy Sheran, whose district includes the park, have made their dissatisfaction known.

"I acknowledge that they are not pleased with the process," he said.

After about 90 minutes, Leversedge was taking suggestions from the crowd on ways to reduce costs and boost revenues at the golf course. While he cautioned that he wasn't suggesting that the decision might be reversed, he did pledge to take the concerns to Commissioner Tom Landwehr on Friday.

When one man suggested a one-year reprieve for the golf course so that some of the financial and operational suggestions might be tried, Leversedge provided an answer that might have felt almost as good to the crowd as successfully hitting a plugged lie out of a bunker.

"I'll take that request back," he said.

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