County votes against Superior National ownership

Board Chair Fritz Sobanja
Board Chair Fritz Sobanja

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The Cook County Joint Economic Development Authority last week endorsed a plan to turn over ownership of Superior National Golf Course to the county. At Tuesday’s board meeting, the county declined the offer.
 
Johnson: I did put out an e-mail to people that are on my e-mail list, and I got a tremendous amount of replies back compared to what I usually get in an e-mail. To be honest with you, there was not a lot of public support for the county taking over the golf course.
 
That was Commissioner Jim Johnson who eventually made the motion to reject county ownership of the course. The vote was three to two to reject with commissioners Johnson, Jan Hall and Fritz Sobanja in the majority, Bob Fenwick and Bruce Martinson in the minority.
 
EDA member and golf course committeeman Mark Sandbo lead the presentation of a business plan written by West End businessmen Scott Harrison, Charles Skinner and Mike Larson.
 
Commissioners listened, debated and argued for two hours. The 70-page plan filled with charts, tables and graphs shows a facility in need of infrastructure repairs, equipment updates and a vigorous marketing campaign. It also shows a deep decline in the number of rounds played, $200,000 owed to the county and the need for a large infusion of cash to keep the course from falling deeper into the rough.
 
Sandbo told commissioners the options were to keep Superior National under EDA ownership and management, sell the course or have the county take it over. He said EDA has not run the course effectively; there are no buyers for a facility that needs heavy investment to continue operating -- leaving county ownership the logical solution. Sandbo said the business plan would transform a declining asset requiring public subsidies to a money maker in ten years. Superior National supporter Hal Greenwood urged the board not to abandon what he said was still a good county asset.
 
Greenwood: My philosophy is water the flowers you already have. The golf course was built. It was rated number 1 public golf course in the state of Minnesota. It brings a tremendous amount of tourism dollars. It brings people down from Canada. It’s one of the finest things that has ever been built in Cook County.
 
The EDA and Superior National Friends want the county to pay off $460,000 in golf course bonds and contribute an additional $100,000 a year as working capital, tap into the 1% sales tax money for needed course improvements and support a new seven member management team to run the facility. The total package would be a $3 million investment over ten years.
 
Commissioner Fritz Sobanja taunted Superior National supporters and questioned their motives.
 
Sobanja: I see the players on the table here of who is coming to the golf course to get money from the county, who wants to take over management of it, and who has put together this business plan. I know very well this entire plan speaks to people sharing the North Shore experience, sharing the experience at your establishments as well as because they can come up and golf, and that you justify it by saying “we create jobs” and you throw some number out there like four million or five million or whatever it is and it gets a little ambiguous in the dialogue, you know, so I’m seeing, wow, you’re going to create 40 new $66,000 a year jobs. And it bewilders me that it’s not clear what you mean by that. Get it? OK. So, I am not going to vote for this.
 
While Commissioner Johnson cited dozens of emails he received against county ownership, Superior National supporters were by far in the majority at Tuesday’s meeting. Supporter Sue Hansen pointed out the course was environmentally friendly economic development.
 
Hansen: I’ve lived here for over 55 years, involved in county activities, and one of the main questions that we have asked in the broad scheme of things is what kind of business can we bring to Cook County? We want it non-polluting, no smoke stacks. We want it to be within the environment, we want to sustain nature. And, we have an asset here that is a green footprint.
 
In 1988, former Lutsen Resort owner George Nelson, Jr. donated 356 acres to the county for a new 18-hole golf course. Nelson was disappointed in the county’s stance and said he felt what Superior National needed was good management. His wife Patty however took the commissioners to task.
 
Nelson: You talk as though you know. You don’t know the people that come and go elsewhere and talk about the area. Everyone I bet it’s 99 percent that comes to that golf course that comes to Grand Marais, spends money going to eat here. They love the town, and they promote the area. You people sit there and want to nibble, nibble, nibble here and don’t really understand the golf course. You all should come out there. Be part of the group, hear what they have to say and feel proud of it. It’s yours not to disclaim. That’s what you’re doing, that’s really what you’re doing. You expect us, who are also tax payers, to be paying for the community center, the pool in Grand Marais, everything, the library, everything that goes here comes from our tax money. Don’t forget it. And you are voting for your districts, yes, but your job is also to convince your district that this is an asset that brings people into this county and like Sue said, it’s a green footprint, it isn’t a smoke stack.
 
But in the end the board decided owning a golf course would be neither popular with the majority of the public nor a fiscal or managerial responsibility they wanted. They did however leave the door open for further negotiations and will meet with the city of Grand Marais and EDA on September 9 to look for possible options other than the ones they were presented on Tuesday.


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