​Park Board’s Hiawatha plan moves forward amid controversy

Photo by Chris Juhn

Communities sharply divided in their response

The Minneapolis Parks and Recreation Board (MPRB) Planning Committee last week voted 3-1 to move the Hiawatha Golf Course Master Plan to the full board at their next meeting in September. Whether or not it is approved, the Master Plan may have created a cultural and racial rift between two local communities of color.

Introduced in 2018, the plan—which would create a new way for water to flow from the course to Lake Hiawatha and cut the course from 18 to nine holes—has been both praised and criticized by Park Board members and community residents. It has failed to pass in the past couple of years.

In a packed meeting room last Wednesday at MPRB headquarters, the Park Board heard from over 50 people as well as written comments on the Hiawatha plan. Most who supported the plan were Native Americans and Whites, while the majority against it were Blacks.      

MPRB officials claim that the plan is a compromise to address the longstanding water problems while at the same time keeping a golf course. Opponents want the course to stay as is and claim that the Park Board is not recognizing the cultural and historical significance that it has for the city’s Black community.

Nicole Cavender argued that the Hiawatha plan is a good compromise because it “provides a reparation for dispossessed land of the Dakota,” and Black golfers and others will still be able to play golf at the South Minneapolis public course.

Bill English called the plan “a disgrace to the Black community” and predicted if the Park Board continues to push it, “This is going to be a fight!”

“I hate golf, but I understand” Hiawatha’s cultural significance to the Black community, said a White woman who told commissioners she is against the plan.

Former Hennepin County Commissioner Peter McLaughlin said the Board should hear all public comments and “allow for a real compromise” before making any final decisions.

A White man in attendance said he supports keeping Hiawatha as it is. A White woman called the plan “disrespectful” and said she would rather see a new plan designed to meet all parties’ needs.

“It hurts that two minority groups are pitted against each other,” added a White female.

Commissioner Becka Thompson told the MSR after the meeting, “I have been ardently against anything [being done] at Hiawatha, finding it a huge waste of resources and capital. Redesigning a golf course…is utterly tone deaf. Despite my protestations, I cannot win over eight other people just by being loud.”

Thompson said of last week’s vote, “The momentum is moving. It will either crash or we can find a way to pivot and find the most desirable answer.”

In other developments, last week Hiawatha Golf Course was nominated for historic designation on the National Register of Historic Places, and the Minnesota State Historic Preservation Review Board is considering it as well. Many opponents of the MPRB plan contend that the board should wait to see if the course’s nomination is approved before making any decisions on its fate.

“I will be proposing an amendment to the Master Plan that will leave a window open for 18 holes,” ​said​ ​Thompson. She added that her amendment would rescind any restriction on water pumping, which Thompson believes would create “more space, which could be used for nine more holes.”

Willie Forcia and Londell French, who both offered testimonies at last Wednesday’s meeting, were on opposite sides but agreed that the plan has created a schism between the Black and Native communities. “We don’t want to destroy the land,” said Forcia, American Indian Movement (AIM) chairman.

French, a former board commissioner, said the current board is “basically putting two groups of people against each other. It’s really heartbreaking.”

“These huge issues, themes and conversations are not going to be solved in a singular project or a singular vote,” concluded Thompson. “These long-arching truths need more steps to be resolved, and I hope my colleagues agree.”

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