Hiawatha golf course still in limbo

Photo courtesy of Jeff Fabre Darwin Dean, Bronze Foundation president

Despite recently renaming its clubhouse after legendary Black golfer Solomon Hughes, Sr., the ultimate fate of the storied Hiawatha Golf Course in South Minneapolis remains in doubt. So far there has been no decision, and park officials say no action is planned—at least for now.

Community residents, course regulars and others have voiced opposition to the Hiawatha Golf Course Area Master Plan, introduced in 2018 by the Minneapolis Park and Recreation Board (MPRB). The plan presently calls for “an inclusive and accessible Par 36, 9-hole course…designed to be more flood-resilient, elevating all golf play spaces above the normal water levels on Lake Hiawatha.” 

Opponents argue that Hiawatha should remain an 18-hole course and MPRB should find another way to solve its water issues. The course is prone to flooding whenever a heavy rain occurs; heavy rains in 2014 flooded the course and forced its closure for months. 

At an MPRB meeting in April, several in attendance testified in support of keeping Hiawatha as it is. “We presented an alternative plan, and we believe it is a good plan,” said Darwin Dean, president of the 10-member Bronze Foundation. 

The local nonprofit group sponsors the annual Upper Midwest Bronze Amateur Memorial Tournament at Hiawatha for youth, adult men and women, and seniors. The tourney is scheduled for later in July. 

“It is a great plan,” continued Dean, “that you should accept and move forward. We want to solve the water [problem]. We want to save finances with our plan. We also want to serve the community that Hiawatha actually exists in and preserve the cultural history that exists.”

The Bronze plan is called “a sympathetic restoration master plan,” which includes redesigning and restoring the Hiawatha course and new course maintenance standards, including course irrigation. Dean told the MSR last week, “We hope to have a new plan by this time next year,” adding that his organization’s plan will address the water issue as well as save the 18-hole course.

Veteran pro golfer Tom Lehman, who is working with Bronze Foundation and others in a course redesigning plan, also testified at the April MPRB board meeting. “All we are asking for is more time for this pushback to be developed, examined and looked at, “ said Lehman.

Stairstep Foundation’s Alfred Babington Johnson stressed the importance of Hiawatha Golf Course as “a historic gathering place for decades for Black people in South Minneapolis.”

Hiawatha became the fifth public golf course operated by the park board when it opened in 1934, then as a nine-hole course; it expanded to 18 holes in 1935. It also became a regular place for Black folks to gather.

Photo by Charles Hallman

“This was a community park,” said Dean, as he spoke to the MSR in the Hiawatha parking lot. “There are still picnic tables back over there. This was our park. This was our playground.  This was our golf course. And now it’s being threatened…because it’s a land grab.”

The MPRB board has twice called for a vote on its Master Plan but has yet to decide to accept or reject it.

“At this time,” said a Park Board spokesperson, “there is no action directing a change to the Hiawatha Golf Course or the advancement of either the MPRB’s 2021 Master Plan or the Bronze Foundation’s alternative concept plan. In addition, for any plan to proceed, there would be years’ worth of steps that will need to be taken, including: additional community engagement; planning, design and engineering; extensive permitting, and substantial funding secured.” 

Dean and others say they are not sure where the current board, with seven new members, stands on the Hiawatha issue. “We’re not winning at this point in time because the park board is holding the cards,” said Dean.

SaveHiawatha18 is a group of homeowners, neighbors and patrons of Hiawatha also in favor of keeping the course as it is. The group on its website produced a white paper that noted the course “is a victim of bad water strategy being implemented by a variety of municipalities and government agencies.”

“I don’t think they do recognize the history behind this course and what it means to African Americans,” said SaveHiawatha18 member Charles Rodgers. “We’ve been fighting this thing for seven years.”

 He added, “They [the park board] are trying to blame the golf course for all the water coming from [Lake] Minnetonka.”

Hiawatha “is a staple to South Minneapolis,” said Ryan Edwards of Minneapolis.

“I believe that it should stay open, especially for the Black golfers here in Minneapolis,” noted Eric Smalley also of Minneapolis.  

   MPRB Superintendent Al Bangoura told the MSR last week that he believed, at least for now, Hiawatha is safe. “I don’t know as far as the board… There’s no action at this point. There has been no decision at this point.”

The Bronze Foundation with Hess, Roise and Company, a Minneapolis-based historical consulting firm, is preparing to apply for national historic status for Hiawatha by the National Register of Historic Places for its “historical value,” said Dean.  

Asked why non-golfers should care about Hiawatha, he said, “If you tear down this golf course, and you destroy it, all that’s gone. All the history is gone and will never come back again.”

2 Comments on “Hiawatha golf course still in limbo”

  1. Hiawatha is a significant course and course of substantial merit for Minneapolis, Minnesota and the region. Having worked on Hiawatha in the past, I know its challenges. I fully support the efforts of the Bronze Foundation to keep the course as 18 holes and make the necessary improvements to insure its continued legacy.

    We assisted Kelly Gibson, PGA with the renovation of the historic Joseph Bartholomew golf course for the City of New Orleans following hurricane Katrina. Hiawatha is every bit as significant to this community. Garrett Gill, Golf Course Architect

  2. A couple points:

    There is no plan to “tear down” Hiawatha Golf course. It’s unfortunate that this keeps being said when it it’s just not true. The current Master Plan adopted by the Park Board was crafted over 7 years with input and involvement of both golfers and non-golfers. It includes a 9-hole 36 par golf course and a sustainable recreation area adjacent.

    The Bronze Foundation plan was taken up by MPRB and sent for an impartial feasbility review by Barr Engineering which deemed it unworkable for several reasons, including the rerouting and separation of the creek from the Lake. The plan would also destroy protected habitats. Both of these would violate environmental regulations and face extremely stiff opposition from the neighborhoods adjacent to the lake.

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