Historic Black landmark in jeopardy

Christopher Mark Juhn

Hiawatha Golf Course may be sacrificed to flood control

Charles Rogers has been golfing at the Hiawatha Golf Course for nearly 40 years. He remembers working there part time when he moved to South Minneapolis from Memphis in 1981, and he still volunteers his services today, in between his countless tee times.

Rodgers loves the golf course the way it is; however, the Minneapolis Parks & Recreation Board (MPRB) has been developing plans to alter the course since it flooded in June of 2014.

“We started SaveHiawatha18 probably four-and-a-half years ago when they first decided they wanted to close it,” Rodgers said. “They decided they wanted to restructure it, and we thought that was basically stupid.”

The SaveHiawatha18 group has been actively pushing back against the Park Board’s plans, attending years of Community Advisory Committee meetings about the issues there and seeking to educate the community and the Park Board about the vibrant history of the Hiawatha Golf Course.

The course opened in 1934 in South Minneapolis’ Standish-Ericsson neighborhood. When White-run golf tournaments did not permit Black golfers to play, they began to host their own tournaments, including one at Hiawatha Golf Course.

In 1939 African American golfer Jimmy Slemmons created, and for many years ran, what was originally called the Minnesota Negro Open Golf Tournament, later renamed the Upper Midwest Bronze Golf Tournament.

“For African Americans, that was probably the only place they could play,” said Rodgers, who is Black. “If you look at all the history, Solomon [Hughes] and Bob Shelton and all those guys, that’s where they played. The Bronze tournament was there. Tiger Woods came there and he donated money for the driving range.

“There’s just so much history there… The Park Board said they’ll give us a plaque.”

The Park Board has drafted a Master Plan for the Nokomis-Hiawatha Regional Park Area, which encompasses the 18-hole Hiawatha Golf Course. After the flooding in 2014, the Park Board began investigating water management at the site. 

Tyler Pederson, the MPRB design project manager, explains why the board believes they need to change the golf course from its current design. He said they wanted to be better prepared for water management of the site for future flooding.

“We started to Master Plan in 2015, and then we put the master plan on hold when we found out that we were actually pumping groundwater from Hiawatha Golf Course,” Pederson said. “That was a little concerning to us because the permit that we had was only to pump storm water, basically pump water for irrigation, not a permit to pump ground water.”

Then they came up with several water management options for the site. “One of them was to basically keep pumping at the rates that we were, so keep pumping ground water and go with the status quo,” Pederson said.

“The other option, which was eventually chosen by the Park Board and recommended by the Park Board staff and the City of Minneapolis and the Watershed District, was an alternative to reduce pumping and actually move the pumping nearer to the neighborhoods so that it still lowers ground water levels near the neighborhood and it basically helps to protect basements from ground water intrusion to the extent it does today.”

This plan would eliminate the existing 18 holes of golf at Hiawatha Golf Course and potentially restructure nine new holes, a plan that has left some community members, like those in the SaveHiawatha18 group, asking why.

Pederson responded: “If we just filled the golf course with soil and made the 18 holes completely dry, it would never flood. It would still flood, but it would push those flood waters toward the neighborhoods. So we can’t mess around with the flood plain. We can manipulate it a bit, but the volume of the flood plain has to remain the same, and that’s what we’re accomplishing with the nine-hole golf course.

“The issue here is trying to deal with risk and how the golf course can bounce back after a flood. Whether it’s 18 holes or nine holes, the golf course is going to flood. With how we’ve got it at nine holes, it can bounce back a lot quicker and open up a lot faster in weeks instead of months,” Pederson said.

There are detailed plans on the MPRB website regarding its water management plan. However, SaveHiawatha18 group member Kathryn Kelly, who grew up on the north side of the golf course and has been playing there for 50 years, believes the plan does not make sense.

“We have talked to a lot of researchers, a lot of public officials, agencies like the DNR and the City and everybody,” Kelly said. “Met the council and the Watershed district. Through all of that we found that there is no reason to close this 18-hole golf course other than [Park Board] Commissioner [Steffanie] Musich wants to.”

Part of the disagreement between MPRB and SaveHiawatha18 has to do with the flood plains, DNR permits, and risk of flooding to homes in the area if the golf course were to be changed. Each claims to have done their research, but there is still a lot of doubt and confusion surrounding this plan.

“This course has been here for over 80 years,” Kelly added. “I’ve seen it flood three times over the course of my life; in 65’ when we were living on the north side [of the course], and in 87’ I was actually here the day it flooded, at my mom’s house. And then again in 2014. In 65’ and 87’ all they did was pump the water out and reseed the areas that got damaged and bring it back.”

She is also concerned about where the money will come from for this project.

Pederson said that the approximate budget was around $43 million, which includes the regional water management plan, some of the park features, the golf course and the restaurant area, among other things.

He said that the funding will not come from one source but many, including taxes, revenue from the golf course and restaurant, regional park dollars, philanthropy and grants, as well as money from renting park equipment.

The executive summary of the Park Board’s plan states: “The Board of Commissioners wants to improve water management, preserve traditional golf in some form, and celebrate the welcoming history of Hiawatha Golf Course.”

MPRB held several years of community advisory committees and focus groups based on the interests of general golfers, African American golfers, persons with environmental interests, neighbors living near the golf course, and Indigenous/Dakota community members.

It also conducted surveys asking residents how they felt about eliminating the 18-hole course completely, going down to nine holes, or leaving it as it is.

“There’s the SaveHiawatha18 group,” Pederson said. “They’re a group of people that really just want to have 18 holes of golf there, and I don’t blame them. It’s a fantastic course and a fantastic place to play. It’s got a really rich history.

“It’s not fun taking something away from people, and we’re trying to compromise with numerous things here, and keeping nine holes is really that compromise.”

MPRB has the plan available to the public for a 45-day comment session that ends September 15.

Pederson added, “As far as honoring the African American history of the site, that’s something that we want to really pursue and partner with the local African American community on. It’s kind of heartbreaking because of the struggles with segregation in the ‘60s and earlier, how it was really difficult for not just Blacks, but minorities of all types to actually play the game and be good at it and be competitive in tournaments.

“I think if there was a way to do 18 holes we would do that. That’s what we were originally pursuing back in 2015, but the ground water issue is something that is pushing us towards nine holes.”

Rodgers considers the nine-hole compromise a joke. “What they want to do is break that berm in the back, and if you break that berm there is no golf course because that whole area would be a lake,” he said.

“I talked to the mayor. He said he doesn’t know where they’re going to get $40 or $50 million to renovate that golf course. We’ve been looking at it for four and a half years, and it just doesn’t make sense.

“They claimed that they want more amenities for the residents, but all the stuff that they are talking about putting at Hiawatha, it is all at Nokomis, so why are we duplicating what’s already there? We definitely don’t need another dog park.”