Park board urged to call off vote on golf-course contract

SHARE Park board urged to call off vote on golf-course contract

Friends of the Parks Executive Director Juanita Irizarry | Sun-Times file photo

Arguing that the $30 million project is being “shoved down the community’s throat,” Friends of the Parks is urging the Chicago Park District board to put off Wednesday’s vote on a $1.1 million contract to design and engineer merger of the Jackson Park and South Shore golf courses.

Friends of the Parks Executive Director Juanita Irizarry’s opposition to Mayor Rahm Emanuel’s giveaway of lakefront park land near Soldier Field killed movie mogul George Lucas’ plan to build an interactive museum in Chicago.

Now, she’s set her sights on the golf project — shrouded in secrecy highlighted by Emanuel’s private emails — that has been on the drawing board for the south lakefront since 2000. The project gained momentum when President Barack Obama chose Jackson Park for his presidential library.

Irizarry noted that Park District Superintendent Mike Kelly met with the Jackson Park Advisory Council on Monday night.

“They will call that their community input process. But when such a meeting happens only two days before a scheduled board meeting which includes on its agenda, approval of a [$1.1 million design and engineering] contract, you know it’s just a sham,” Irizarry said.

“The mayor continues in the same process of making decisions outside the public eye and then, pretending to have a public input process just to ram something through. . . . There will be a community up in arms for having shoved this project down their throat.”

Kelly said he has no intention of calling off Wednesday’s vote on the design and engineering contract.

He categorically denied that the contract locks in a project that would create a championship-caliber golf course carved out of the existing, 18-hole Jackson Park course and the 9-hole, par-3 South Shore course.

“If I can’t raise the money, I’m not gonna put a shovel in the ground. And if I don’t have the community’s support — namely the golfers and the users and the stakeholders that have long been invested in South Shore and Jackson, I’m not gonna start,” he said.

“I make no bones about it. I want to start moving dirt in March and April. But I’m not gonna do that until I’ve got people supporting me.”

Community support is likely to be an uphill battle, according to Naomi Davis, founder of Blacks in Green, a national network of economic and environmental professionals based in West Woodlawn actively engaged in issues surrounding the Obama presidential library.

“The better use of time and resources is raising $30 million for a state-of-the art sports center to replace the 21-acre footprint the Obama Presidential Center will displace,” Davis said.

Arguing that the Jackson Park field house is “really over the hill,” Davis said, “African-American youth who need more and better of everything ought to be the priority of the Park District rather than any group of world class golfers.”

Park Board President Jesse Ruiz and Vice-President Avis LaVelle denied that the golf project is a symbol of the Park District’s misplaced priorities.

Although private donations are expected to cover 80 percent of the golf course project, public money will be used to build new underpasses — at 67th Street and South Shore Drive and at Jeffery Boulevard and 66th Street — needed to make the new golf course work.

“Embarrassingly, I didn’t know until recently that every Chicagoan 17-and-under is entitled to go and golf for free on a Chicago Park District golf course. That to me doesn’t seem elitist at all. It seems very welcoming to young people in particular,” Ruiz said.

LaVelle made no apologies for the feasibility study of a golf project that, Kelly acknowledged, could cost taxpayers at least $11 million for the 67th Street underpass alone.

“It’s not an elitist dying sport. There are kids in the city who are playing golf and learning to play golf and enjoying it,” LaVelle said.

“It is a beautiful golf course right now that has the potential to be even more wonderful. And it’s right in the heart of the city. Should it just be ignored? If it’s made better from resources that come from a variety of different sources, that is to the benefit of everybody on the South Side.”

Last month, Emanuel and Kelly announced creation of the Chicago Parks Golf Alliance to spearhead the golf project.

The non-profit lists Michael Ruemmler, the former City Hall operative who managed Emanuel’s 2011 and 2015 mayoral campaigns, as its primary contact.

The non-profit is led by Mark Rolfing, an analyst for NBC Golf Channel and an award-winning golf course designer himself.

Last year, the Park District quietly awarded a $90,000 consulting contract to Rolfing to lay the groundwork for the golf course project and set up meetings with golf super-stars/golf course designers Tiger Woods and Ben Crenshaw as well as with the PGA Tour and the Western Golf Association.

“Mark was the linchpin to getting all of these different people into these discussions and getting people excited about it,” Kelly said.

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