Park District superintendent not giving up on golf course merger

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The Chicago Park District wants to merge the Jackson Park (shown) and South Shore golf courses. | Sun-Times file photo

Chicago Park District Superintendent Mike Kelly acknowledged Thursday he lacks both the money and support to merge the Jackson Park and South Shore golf courses into a championship-caliber course — but he won’t give up on the $30 million project.

“We’re still looking for community support. We’re still looking for financial support. The money still has to be raised. I don’t have it yet. But hopefully, I will — through transparency, hard work, and showing people the benefits of it,” Kelly said Thursday.

“The community wants to see the golf plans, the routing. I said we will commit to that. I also committed to publishing the plan during the first quarter [of 2018]. I’m gonna have to have some golf meetings in the first quarter to get that plan published.”

The Chicago Sun-Times reported in early March that the merger, which gained momentum when former President Barack Obama chose Jackson Park for his presidential center, had hit a fundraising snag, derailing Kelly’s plan to begin construction last spring.

The merger has since stirred even more controversy because the design — by a firm owned by Tiger Woods — would require closing Marquette Drive, building a pair of new underpasses, displacing tennis courts and relocating the South Shore Nature Sanctuary to make way for a new 12th hole.

On Thursday, Kelly acknowledged the cost of the underpasses alone — at 67th Street and South Shore Drive and at Jeffery Boulevard and 66th Street — is $30 million.

That would match the $30 million price tag for the new course, with $6 million of that coming from Chicago taxpayers. But the superintendent argued that the underpasses — and the closing of Marquette Drive between Cornell and Lake Shore Drive — are needed, with or without the merger.

“The traffic study says they do need to close Marquette. I love it because I get more green space back. And don’t you want people to get to the lakefront on the South Side as well as the North Side? I want the underpasses, regardless of golf. That’s good for the city and good for the South Side,” Kelly said.

“If not now, when? We’ve been talking about this since 1999. And the fact that we still have golf carts crossing Jeffrey is insane. That needs to be improved. That’s a transportation project.”

Ever since the golf course layout was unveiled, Jackson Park residents have demanded to know where the treasured bird and butterfly preserve will be relocated to make way for the new 12th hole and how that work would be paid for.

On Thursday, Kelly was asked that question yet again.

He would only say: “I absolutely believe we’ll have a better footprint for nature when we’re done than when we started. You have to remember all the land we own south of Rainbow Beach. We own hundreds of acres. I believe we’ll have more natural area on the site than when we started.”

Last year, the Park District signed a 10-year agreement with the non-profit Chicago Parks Golf Alliance to spearhead the controversial project.

The agreement called for the alliance to be the “sole fundraising entity” for the project and to “work in partnership with the Park District for the fundraising, implementation and construction of agreed upon master plans.”

The contract established anticipated timelines and fundraising goals, nearly all of which have not been met.

For restoration of the South Shore golf course, the anticipated timeline was May through September, 2018. The fundraising goal to be met by the non-profit alliance was $10 million.

For the Jackson Park course, the timeline was March 2018 through September 2020. The non-profit’s fundraising goal was $15 million.

All fundraising proceeds were to be deposited into an escrow account held by a title company agreeable to both parties.

Founding director Brian Hogan has said he “remains confident” that the fundraising goals outlined in the contract will be reached in time to complete construction in 2020.

Earlier this year, Hogan disclosed that shoreline conditions uncovered by civil engineers from SmithGroupJJR working in conjunction with golf course architects from Tiger Woods ‘ firm are worse than anticipated and more costly to repair.

Asked Thursday to pinpoint that cost, Kelly said, “I don’t have a number. But, I know it’s not a make-or-break situation.”

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