Ald. Leslie Hairston accused of lying about nature sanctuary as part of ‘marketing campaign’ to jump-start golf course merger
Hairston claimed the South Shore Nature Sanctuary has been “dead for some years ... because there was nobody to maintain it.” But Jackson Park Watch posted pictures on Twitter to prove the sanctuary is alive and well and distributed them at a Chicago Park District board meeting.
Ald. Leslie Hairston (5th) was accused Wednesday of making false claims about the condition of a cherished nature sanctuary as part of a “marketing campaign” aimed at jump-starting a stalled plan to merge the Jackson Park and South Shore golf courses.
The merger has stirred controversy because the design by a firm owned by golf legend 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 that would be the “money shot” for a televised tournament.
The underpasses alone — at 67th Street and South Shore Drive and at Jeffery Boulevard and 66th Street — cost $30 million — as much as the price tag for just the new course.
Mayor Lori Lightfoot has said she is “not wild about” the merger, citing “red flags” and “environmental issues.” She has argued the merger, which gained momentum when former President Barack Obama chose Jackson Park for his presidential center, is “not a well-thought out plan,” nor has it been “respectful of the community.”
With Woods in town this week to compete in the BMW Championship at Medinah Country Club, Hairston spent the day at Medinah and said she hoped to change the mayor’s mind by taking her on a tour of the nature sanctuary.
“It’s actually all dead. And it’s been dead for some years. ... The reason that the current sanctuary is in the condition that it is is because there was nobody to maintain it,” Hairston said.
On Wednesday, Jackson Park Watch accused the alderman of making “completely false” statements as part of a “marketing campaign” to push the golf course merger.
Area residents posted pictures on Twitter to prove the nature sanctuary is alive and well and distributed them at a Chicago Park District board meeting.
“It’s a beautiful, beautiful space and it’s used by a lot of folks,” said Brenda Nelms, co-president of Jackson Park Watch.
“What they’re offering in alternative replacement is some trees and shrubs between fairways of the golf course. You’d have to pay more attention to avoiding golf balls than you would relaxing or enjoying the space.”
Marcus Hersh, who lives two blocks away from the entrance to the South Shore Cultural Center, called the nature sanctuary “one of the most beautiful, vibrant places in Chicago.” Hersh said it was “pretty disturbing” that Hairston “would be willing to so outrageously distort the truth.”
Hairston did not immediately respond to requests for comment on Jackson Park Watch’s allegations.
Nelms said she anticipated that proponents of the golf course merger would take advantage of Woods’ appearance at the BMW Championship to make a renewed push for the stalled project. But that push is “all focused on, kind of celebrity endorsement as opposed to solid financial analyses and an assessment of how many will be served,” she said.
In a statement delivered at the park district board meeting, Nelms argued there is no proof the new course would be economically viable, no guarantee local golfers would have affordable fees and tee time access, and “no public plan for erecting lakefront revetments and underpasses . . . sufficient to deal with the high water table and rising lake levels.”
“Improvement of the golf courses . . . can be accomplished without sacrificing recreational spaces treasured by many and without turning Jackson Park and South Shore into more of a golf club for the wealthy than a public park serving the many,” Nelms told the board.
Two years ago, the Park District signed a 10-year agreement with the non-profit Chicago Parks Golf alliance to spearhead what was then a $30 million plan to merge the Jackson Park and South Shore golf courses into a single, championship-caliber course.
The agreement, signed Dec. 15, 2016, calls for the alliance to be the “sole fundraising entity” for the ambitious project and to “work in partnership with the Park District for the fundraising, implementation and construction of agreed upon master plans.”
The contract set timelines and fundraising goals — nearly all of which have not been met.
For restoration of the South Shore golf course, the 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.
Brian Hogan and Mike Ruemmler are co-founding directors of the Chicago Parks Golf Alliance.
Ruemmler, who managed Rahm Emanuel’s 2011 and 2015 mayoral campaigns, could not be reached for comment.
Hogan responded to a text message about the status of private fundraising for the project by saying, “Momentum progressing. Approaching $10 million [in] pledges. Confident in [meeting] $30M goal.”
Pressed on the updated cost of merging the two golf courses, Hogan said, “Cost estimates pending further design development and review.”