Mayor Rahm Emanuel’s former campaign manager came out of the shadows Monday to make the case for merging the Jackson Park and South Shore golf courses into a single, championship-caliber course.
Michael Ruemmler’s role as a founding director of the Chicago Parks Golf Alliance has fueled speculation that the fix was in for a project that gained momentum when President Barack Obama chose Jackson Park for his presidential library.
That conspiracy theory was further fueled by Emanuel’s private emails. They showed that City Hall was laying the groundwork for the $30 million project nearly five months before Emanuel and the Chicago Park District went public about the project.
On Monday, Ruemmler spoke publicly about the project for the first time.
He categorically denied that his role as director of the nonprofit charged with raising private money to cover 80 percent of the cost has anything to do with his history as a City Hall operative who managed Emanuel’s 2011 and 2015 mayoral campaigns.
“I am doing this because . . . it’s a passion of mine. Golf has been something I grew up with. I was given a special opportunity by a family friend when I was a kid to get me into the game. It was a positive thing for me — something that’s been a big part of my life. I would love to see that continue with kids here in Chicago,” Ruemmler said.
“I have been talking to friends about this for a long time. It’s something that started as a daydream and really just a cool possibility and now, it’s inching closer to reality. It’s not something that the mayor asked me to do.”
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Ruemmler said he would await the outcome of a $1.1 million design and engineering study before deciding whether the golf course merger would require closing Marquette Drive between Cornell and Lake Shore Drive.
But he acknowledged that the street closing would make the project a whole lot easier.
“There’s not a whole lot of room there. When you look at the perimeters of this golf course, they’re all bound by streets and we can’t close ’em. There’s only so much green space there. If you could create more green space, that would be beneficial,” he said.
“But there’s other bigger considerations like traffic and community input. Until all of those boxes are checked, we’re a long way off.”
Park District Supt. Michael Kelly has said he would like to start work in March or April to create a championship-caliber course carved out of the existing, 18-hole Jackson Park course and the 9-hole, par-3 South Shore course.
But the superintendent has promised that he won’t “put a shovel in the ground” until he has community support and at least $5 million in private contributions.
Private donations are expected to cover 80 percent of the $30 million cost. 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. The 67th Street underpass alone could cost at least $11 million.
On Monday, Ruemmler made the public case for both underpasses.
“Near La Rabida, what we’ve heard at community meetings is that people can’t get across the street safely there. There have actually been some casualties right there at that curb at 67th and South Shore Drive,” he said.
“A woman was talking about how she can’t access the lake because there’s no safe way to get across. An underpasss there would have a dramatic effect.”
Ruemmler acknowledged that the Jeffery underpass “would be mostly for the golf course.”
But, he said, “When we’ve had people come to look at the golf course, they say, `Wait a minute. People cross this road twice while they’re playing golf?’ They think it’s insane. It’s a major thoroughfare and you’ve got people carrying golf clubs, pushing carts and driving golf carts across a four-lane highway. It’s not a safe scenario,” he said.
Louise McCurry, president of the Jackson Park Advisory Council, said she’s all for the project but needs more detail.
“We have two, 100-year-old golf courses that are falling apart. The cost of putting Band-Aids on the problem is hugely expensive for the Park District. If you can do a major repair so you have a usable golf course for the next 100 years, that benefits the community,” McCurry said.
“I’m very much in favor of getting the study done and finding out what the cost will be. The engineering company is working on that. They’re looking at the water table, which is extraordinarily high. They’re looking at the revetments along the shore line that are allowing the water to wash into the golf course and wash the golf courses away. Then we can make a more rational decision based on the facts.”
Margaret Schmid, co-coordinator of Jackson Park Watch, said she’s “all for the idea of improving” the century-old golf courses. But she needs to see a long-term plan for all of Jackson Park before signing on.
“It’s at risk of being sliced and diced into meaningless segments and losing its integrity,” Schmid said.