Mayor Rahm Emanuel’s $30 million plan to merge the Jackson Park and South Shore golf courses into a single, championship-caliber course has hit a fundraising slowdown amid fears of exactly how the redesigned holes would be built along the Lake Michigan shoreline.
Michael Ruemmler, the former mayoral campaign manager now serving as a founding director of the Chicago Parks Golf Alliance, said private donors want to see results of a $1.1 million design and engineering study commissioned by the Chicago Park District before they start writing checks.
Park District Superintendent Mike Kelly wanted to start construction this month or next on a project that gained momentum when President Barack Obama chose Jackson Park for his presidential library.
But Kelly has promised he won’t “put a shovel in the ground” until he has community support and at least $5 million in private contributions.
Now, Ruemmler is acknowledging he’s raised only enough money to pay the non-profit’s bills and go a little bit beyond “living hand-to-mouth.”
He’s nowhere near what he calls the “$5 million threshold” — and he won’t be, until the study determines the actual cost of the new course and the price tag for taxpayer-funded public improvements needed to make the merger work.
Those public improvements include new underpasses at 67th Street and South Shore Drive and at Jeffery Boulevard and 66th Street. The 67th Street underpass alone could cost Chicago taxpayers at least $11 million.
There’s also been talk of closing Marquette Drive between Cornell and Lake Shore Drive.
“We’ve got a lot of people [who] are ready to go as soon as they can see some designs and make sure that everything works. We have to make sure that our community input is strong and that the designs are feasible,” Ruemmler told the Chicago Sun-Times.
“Once there’s a plan on paper that we can share with people and let them kick the tires on, then checks will be coming shortly after. … But people want to make sure that it’s real before they give any hard-earned money.”
Ruemmler said he has identified “dozens” of donors who want to know “what the holes are going to look like and how they would interact with an underpass or any other street or public space.”
They also need to know whether potentially costly shoreline improvements will be required to follow through on a potentially “spectacular” plan to build holes overlooking Lake Michigan.
“Even someone like me who has no knowledge or background in engineering or shoreline preservation can see that there are weak points in the shore there and, if not attended to, are gonna become problematic if we proceed with our project or if it’s the same golf course that is left to be as it is,” Ruemmler said.
“There are slabs of concrete that you can tell were from demolition. There are rebars sticking up out of the concrete. It’s been kind of tossed together. Maybe they’ll come back and say, ‘This is gonna last another 50 years.’ Or maybe there’s a portion that is particularly bad, but the rest of it is serviceable for a while. Then beyond that, what is the remedy?”
Last year, Friends of the Parks Executive Director Juanita Irizarry’s opposition to Emanuel’s giveaway of lakefront parkland near Soldier Field killed movie mogul George Lucas’ plan to build an interactive museum in Chicago.
She has now set her sights on the golf project — shrouded in secrecy highlighted by Emanuel’s private emails. Irizarry has accused the Park District of shoving the golf course project “down the community’s throat” with insufficient public input and without a broader plan for Jackson Park.
Irizarry has noted that Kelly, the mayor and Marty Nesbitt, the presidential pal who chairs the Obama Foundation, were exchanging private emails about the golf course project last summer, long before area residents got wind of it.
In light of that continued opposition and the potential for shoreline complications, Ruemmler was asked whether he is still convinced the plan to carve a new championship-caliber course out of the existing, 18-hole Jackson Park course and the 9-hole, par-3 South Shore course would get off the ground.
“Nothing’s a sure thing until it’s done, right? You’ve seen a lot of good projects come and go in this city,” he said.
“But I’m hopeful. We have a lot of smart people working on it. … If they can come up with a plan that overcomes any challenges, [it’ll happen.] But, there’s always challenges.”