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The proposed redesign of Hiawatha Golf Course is testing communities in Minneapolis and beyond. The course with historic ties to the Twin Cities Black community was built out of a marsh, and some say it should be smaller to cope with flooding problems.
In response to major flooding in 2014, the Minneapolis Park and Recreation Board began a process intended to redesign the golf course in a way that would address a host of water issues, including the pollution of Lake Hiawatha, a small lake next to the golf course.
After five years of gathering input, the Park Board put out the Hiawatha Master Plan, which calls for the golf course to be reduced from 18 holes to nine in order to mitigate flooding and address stormwater flowing into the lake and marshland.
“If you don’t have 18 holes of golf, then obviously tournament play is terminated. A lot of championship golf that has been played here in the past and in the future will simply just go away,” said Darwin Dean, president of the Bronze Foundation, which hosts a 75-year-old tournament and the Junior Bronze for young golfers.
Golfers like Dean point to the course’s historic and honorific importance to Black communities throughout the Twin Cities.
Since 2018, the Minneapolis Park Board has tried to advance the Hiawatha Master Plan. It’s been shelved and revived several times to allow for time to consider an alternative plan that would preserve 18 holes.
Artist Sean Connaughty leads Friends of Lake Hiawatha and supports a smaller golf course. He said he’s had to battle the Park Board over its pumping practices that he says contributed to poor water quality in Lake Hiawatha.
When the Park began its redesign process, he seized the opportunity to demonstrate how stormwater from south Minneapolis dumps unfiltered into the lake from a pipe.
Several times a week, Connaughty walks along the shore of Lake Hiawatha to collect stormwater-borne trash. Volunteers have picked up around 10,000 pounds of debris so far this year.
He has heard the concerns of the golf community at Hiawatha, particularly those of the Black golfers. He believes the current plan has a lot of compromise built into it.
“It elevates the golf course above the 10-year floodplain so that it can be sustainable,” said Connaughty. “And, it honors the history of Black golfers… equalizes the lake with the land, restores wetland function to the watershed, treats the stormwater pollution, filters out the trash.”
History drives support for preservation
On a sunny, breezy Thursday morning, golfers of all ages gathered to support younger players at the Junior Bronze tournament.
David Goodlow and his wife Frances were at the tournament to support their grandchildren who are playing in the Junior Bronze. David introduced his daughter and two sons to the sport at an early age.
“I love playing with my kids. Because we really have some quality time together other than golf. We’re just talking about what is going on in your life,” Goodlow said.
David Goodlow founded Personal Enrichment Programs for African Americans Pepaa, which eventually became part of the Fairway Foundation. The organization promotes youth golf. Goodlow’s son Erick coaches young golfers.
Erick remembers playing in his first Junior Bronze tournament at age 10 at the Hiawatha Golf Course.
“I just remember that a lot of you know, people of color, Black folks at a golf course,” remembers Goodlow. “Almost like a family reunion.”
Hiawatha is the historic golf home of pro Solomon Hughes, Sr., who started playing there and at other Twin Cities courses in the 1940s. He was the first to successfully challenge segregation at Hiawatha’s clubhouse.
“He felt that this rule of not allowing Blacks to be in the clubhouse but they could play on the course was just totally unfair, discriminatory,” Hughes said. “So he and a couple other people demanded that they change the rule, and in 1952 that happened.”
The clubhouse that once denied the elder Hughes entry was named in his honor this past spring by the Minneapolis Park Board.
“He taught Joe Lewis how to play golf. And my dad asked Joe Lewis, ‘Is it easy to win a fight?’ And he said, ‘It’s easy to knock out a guy in one round,’ but he says ‘Try to go the distance. Try to go 15 rounds. That’s what makes a championship.’”
Hughes and his family want the course to stay 18 holes.
‘Water is always going to win’
Joining the fray around Hiawatha Master Plan are members of the Dakota community who reside in Minneapolis. Nicole Cavender lives near the lake in the Standish neighborhood.
She says her family’s connection to the land that is now Minneapolis is why she’s chosen to ally herself with neighborhood environmental groups.
“The core of what I want to see happen is cleaning of the water, and the land, and protection for the animals that live there,” said Cavender. “And having that happen as soon as possible.”
Cavender prefers no golf course at all, but supports the current plan to reduce it to nine holes.
Everyone connected to the redesign process seems to agree that something has to be done about flooding at the golf course.
Golfer Erick Goodlow, a former park commissioner in St. Paul, said he recognizes the challenges faced by the Park Board in its decision.
“Water is always going to win … I know the flooding situation has had an impact,” said Goodlow. “I can’t imagine if there truly is a fix that really can fix it, even though probably more my belief is that naturally, that space, or at least half of it is just always going to have water issues.”
Goodlow would like to make sure that any plan preserves the nine holes of golf that youth can access.
Minneapolis Park Board Commissioner Steffanie Musich, who has supported the Hiawatha Master Plan since its inception, says an alternative plan offered by the Bronze Foundation may need to clear steps required by state and federal governments.
“I think it really underscores the need for an acknowledgement and understanding and grounding in the fact that this has been a floodplain that any modifications to this require the approval of the Army Corps of Engineers, and that we cannot diminish the flood capacity of this location in any way shape or form,” Musich said.
To try to preserve 18 holes, the Bronze Foundation has said it will seek to have the Hiawatha Golf Course placed on the National Register of Historic Places.
A vote on whether to hold a public hearing on the proposed redesign will happen Wednesday, and if it passes, a public hearing may be set for Aug. 17.