Monday
Dec192016

Jackson Park: Rebirth or boondoggle?

A Grill Room Special by Tim Cronin

Monday, December 19, 2016

On the surface, turning the two municipal golf courses at Jackson Park and South Shore into one grand public facility that could host big-time golf while still catering to the citizenry at the current price is a wonderful idea.

So, at first blush, is Christmas every day.

The question in each scenario is who pays for it, and how realistic is the concept?

The short answers regarding golf are the public, and not very. (We leave Christmas every day to the 6-year-old in you.)

The neighborhoods of Chicago adjacent to Jackson Park and South Shore, just east of the University of Chicago from 63rd to 71st Streets, need help in every way. They’re adjacent to the some of highest-crime areas of the city, need reinvestment in schools, infrastructure, and most everything else you can think of.

With 27 holes of golf already on the ground and, in season, available to all, is a rebuilt golf course one of those needs?

Nobody except Mark Rolfing, the NBC golf analyst who grew up in DeKalb, seemed to think so for the longest time. His vision is of a redesigned combined course capable of hosting the Western Golf Association’s BMW Championship – the Western Open under its original name – plus a short course and assorted other amenities.

In 2015, he called the idea “the future of urban golf in America.”

Since then, Rolfing, having beaten cancer, has done much work behind the scenes, so much that on Sunday, the office of Chicago mayor Rahm Emanuel and the Chicago Park District, which owns both Jackson Park and the South Shore Cultural Center, announced the birth of the non-profit Chicago Parks Golf Alliance, which Rolfing will head, to push the idea forward.

Rolfing said in recent days that TGR Design, the golf architecture firm of Tiger Woods, lead what is termed a “restoration” of the two courses. Woods has toured the property with Rolfing, and his involvement could add some architectural gravitas to the operation. Golf Digest named Woods’ Bluejack National in Houston the best new private course of 2016.

“We want to design a course that everyone will enjoy,” Woods said in the release making Rolfing’s group the project leader.

There’s nothing about a price tag in the announcement, but $30 million is the cost being bandied about – and the Chicago Tribune reports that doesn’t include a critical part of the project, a pair of tunnels linking Jackson Park and South Shore, which are cater-corner at the intersection of 67th Street and South Shore Drive. In Chicago, the cost of that could be astronomical. (If there’s any alteration to the footprint of the lakefront – a.k.a. landfill – the Army Corps of Engineers and the other member states of the Great Lakes Compact would have to approve.)

There’s also nothing about the potential closure of streets within Jackson Park – Jeffrey, Richard, Marquette, and the beginning of Lake Shore Drive itself – all of which are used by the public every hour of every day and currently split up the course into three parts. Without those, 67th and Stony Island, the latter running along the west boundary of Jackson Park, becomes clogged with even more traffic than currently courses through the Woodlawn neighborhood. Marquette, in particular, leads to LaRabida Children’s Hospital, located on the lakefront. (Conversely, the streets could stay, and players could continue to toddle through intersections with golf bags in tow; Harbor Shores, the course built largely on reclaimed industrial land in Benton Harbor, Mich., is designed in similar fashion, albeit with at least one tunnel.)

The Rolfing-led group has also been tasked to promote caddie programs in association with the WGA – there’s been at least one Evans Scholar who looped at Jackson Park.

Everyone quoted in Sunday’s release said the right thing. Emanuel called it “a unique opportunity to drive resources and investments on the South Side.” WGA president John Kaczkowski said the renovation “could provide a compelling site for future PGA Tour events, including the BMW Championship, as early as 2021, when the event is expected to return to Chicago.” First Tee of Greater Chicago executive director Lisa Quinn said the project would “enable us to increase our programs which have been active at South Shore and Lincoln Park for more than 15 years.”

So where does the money come from? Park superintendent Michael Kelly told the Tribune the goal is for 80 percent of the money – $24 million, if the cost estimate holds – to come from the private sector. That leaves $6 million for Chicago taxpayers to fund.

Raising that $24 million won’t be easy. It might be easier for a completely new property, but given that there are already two golf courses on the property, plus a driving range at Jackson Park, and one can tee it up for 18 holes for just $25 in the summer, and even less for the nine at South Shore, which is, more or less, a Tom Bendelow design from a century ago, the cost-benefit ratio isn’t visible from this outpost.

The release reiterates what had been said earlier, that Chicagoans – Emanuel called them “neighborhood golfers” – would get “a reduced rate” compared to the rest of the customers. But don’t expect that reduced rate to be what players paid in the summer.

The timing of the announcement was unusual, but may provide a clue to the enthusiasm of the municipalities. Why would Chicago and the Chicago Park District announce an initiative leading to a major change in what Emanuel calls “a historic public golf course” at noon on a Sunday during the football season – and when Soldier Field, perhaps the most-visited Park District facility, is hosting a football game between the Bears and their old pals, the Green Bay Packers?

That smells of the sports version of the Friday news dump. Announce something that sounds good and has no money behind it, as much as a favor to the organizers as anything, at a time when few would question the specifics – not that there was a news conference where questions might be proffered, anyway.

In other words, Emanuel and Kelly have wedged the ball onto Rolfing’s green. Now it’s up to him to find the money to make it happen.

Daniel Burnham, the most forward-thinking Chicagoan of them all, is famously said to have said, “Make no little plans; they have no magic to stir men's blood and probably themselves will not be realized. Make big plans; aim high in hope and work, remembering that a noble, logical diagram once recorded will never die, but long after we are gone be a living thing, asserting itself with ever-growing insistency. Remember that our sons and our grandsons are going to do things that would stagger us. Let your watchword be order and your beacon beauty.”

This is no little plan. Nor does it stir the blood. Wouldn’t it be better to spend $1 million on refurbishing Jackson Park’s current course and the other $29 million for a school that could somehow be affiliated with the coming Obama Presidential Library in the neighborhood?

That would be better for kids who might want to caddie or take part in the existing First Tee program than a tournament-tough golf course that would beat up those regulars who have supported their neighborhood munis for years.

----

Edited at 3 p.m. to add Jackson Park's 2016 summer rate ($25).

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