By Kristin Miller
Golf courses all around the area are shutting down their fairways for the season. For one, however, this winter is bringing with it uncertainty about the future and concern from golfers who may have played their last rounds there this past summer.
The Ponderosa Golf Course, located east of Glyndon, Minn., near the Buffalo River State Park is facing closure due to the planned expansion of the Regional Science Center. The decision to shut down the course has been met with push-back from the golf community in the area.
Currently, the land on which the course is located is owned by MSUM’s Alumni Foundation, and is planned to be gifted to the RSC pending the approval of an approximately $500,000 grant by the Minnesota legislature. If approved, funding from the grant will be used to convert 160 acres of land, including around 50 acres occupied by the golf course, to expand the capabilities of the RSC, as well as provide research opportunities for ecological recovery.
Mark Johnson, co-owner of Valley Golf Management, the company that has leased the land and run the course for the last four years, said that the current proposal will negatively impact those who use the course, many of whom have been playing there for decades.
“We’re proud to have a course that anyone could play…We host 10-15,000 rounds per year here, depending on the summer,” he said, adding the course’s affordability, with a round costing just $10, also adds to its popularity with local golfers.
However, David Walberg, executive director of marketing and communications at MSUM, said that this plan has been a long time coming.
“The original intent from day one was to use the property for information and education,” he said, referring to the 1978 donation of the land to the university by the Elks Club. Golf operations have continued on the property since that time, with nine of the course’s original 18 holes already having been converted back to natural area in the early ‘90s.
“In 1978 we didn’t have the total funding, there was a compromise,” Walberg said, and added that pending the approval of the grant, they would be able to complete the original plan for the land. “The mission of the university is education, teaching, research, not recreational opportunities…This is a tremendous opportunity for students to be involved.”
As news of the course’s potential closure spread, Johnson said many of their regulars turned out in support of keeping operations going.
“We had over 1,200 people sign a petition,” Johnson said. That petition was subsequently presented to Paul Marquart, Minnesota state representative from District 4B. Marquart has been in talks with both the owners of VGM and university administration about finding a possible reconciliation between the two sides, one which would allow the course to stay open.
“He [Marquart] felt like he was making some progress. The next step is for golfers to reach out to the foundation,” Johnson said. “Paul doesn’t want to see the grant compromised, and I agree with that.”
Representative Marquart has stated previously that he was open to working with the university, course managers and the legislature to attempt to make a compromise that would benefit all involved. In an interview with KFGO on Oct. 9 he spoke about the possibility of incorporating golf and an educational experience into the existing site.
Johnson agrees. “It could truly be a one-of-a-kind research center/golf course…we could really coexist.”
However, with the way the course is set up in relation to the rest of the land named in the grant, with many sections overlapping the course, Walberg believes it would be difficult to make any workable compromise between keeping the course and simultaneously expanding RSC area.
“From a perspective of scientific rigor, you can’t isolate the variables,” he said, adding that those variables might include foot traffic from the course near where research is carried out, as well as contamination from herbicides and other groundskeeping chemicals used by the course.
Submitted in April, the grant’s future will be decided during the next legislative session.
“We’ve met with the legislative delegation to explain the proposals, we’ve met with the management…we’ve had conversations on a regular basis,” Walberg said about their efforts to keep all parties informed as decisions were made about the course’s future.
Johnson, however, disagreed.
“We were surprised…The timing was off,” he said, adding that it has been difficult for them to plan for next summer’s season as they closed shop for the winter, spending money on maintenance without the guarantee they’ll be reopening. “It’s not ideal. We’re kind of doing it on the hope that we’ll be playing golf here next year.”
Johnson also took issue with some of the wording in the grant proposal, which states that the land had been “recently managed as a gold course.”
“It was a bit misleading,” Johnson said, as operations are presently ongoing.
“It puts them in an awkward position,” Walberg admitted, though added that the Alumni Foundation is acting on the original intent for the land, saying “that was why the university accepted the land to begin with.”
“We value the relationship we’ve had with them,” Walberg added about VGM.
The Alumni Foundation has made an informational section available at mnstate.edu/ponderosa, which includes information about the project and the future of the course.
The Q&A section discusses educational benefits as well as provides a breakdown of financial considerations for the university from VGM’s lease payments on the land. Additionally, they cite the proximity of other area courses as a factor in their decision to close Ponderosa, one reason Johnson doesn’t think carries much weight.
“Folks that are playing this course probably aren’t going to be playing the others,” Johnson said, adding that the low cost of play, relaxed atmosphere and scenic location have made it a favorite for local golfers, unique from other area courses. “This is a niche facility…it’s laid-back, you can bring your family here.”
The grant will not be approved or rejected until the 2015 legislative session, which begins in January, and Johnson remains hopeful that they will reach an agreement that will leave each party satisfied.
“There are so many opportunities here to leverage positivity for the university,” Johnson said.