Park District board OKs $1.1M to design merger of 2 golf courses

Park District Commissioner Michael P. Kelly and Board President Jesse Ruiz at a meeting Wednesday on the proposed merger of the Jackson Park and South Shore golf courses. | Sam Charles/Sun-Times

Despite community input suggesting the decision “was setting us up for a fight,” the Chicago Park District Board of Commissioners voted unanimously on Wednesday to approve a $1.1 million contract to design and engineer the merger of the Jackson Park and South Shore golf courses.

Before the vote was taken, Board President Jesse Ruiz called the plans “preliminary.”

“We can plan to do something as opposed to plan on doing nothing,” he added.

Commissioner Juan Salgado conceded that the board didn’t have enough information yet to make some decisions about the parks’ proposed merger, but he said he was confident it would be presented and the process would be transparent.

“I have full confidence that we will have the information that we need to have in order to be good decision makers,” Salgado said. “We don’t have the information that we need to have. We need to get information.”

On Monday night, Park District Supt. Michael P. Kelly met with the Jackson Park Advisory Council. Juanita Irizarry, executive director of Friends of the Parks, decried the meeting as a last-ditch effort to preserve an air of transparency.

“We recognize that there are always going to be disagreements about the best use or uses of parks,” Irizarry said during the public comments part of the meeting on Wednesday. “When you hold community input sessions at the very last minute, trying to create the impression of public participation, after the parks superintendent and the mayor had been secretly putting a plan in place for quite a long time, you create mistrust.”

Irizarry argued that the $30 million project is being “shoved down the community’s throat.” She and several other speakers called for the board to delay the vote.

Juanita Irizarry | Sun-Times file photo

Irizarry’s opposition to Mayor Rahm Emanuel’s giveaway of lakefront parkland near Soldier Field killed movie mogul George Lucas’ plan to build an interactive museum in Chicago.

Now, she has 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 center and library.

Kelly 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.

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

“If I can’t raise the money, I’m not going to 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 going to start,” Kelly said.

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

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.”

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,” she said.

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

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

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

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.

Contributing: Fran Spielman