By Keith Chambers, Chicago Crusader
It was a busy Saturday afternoon at the Jackson Park golf course in East Woodlawn. The sunny skies and mild winter weather drew an army of eager golfers who came ready with their A game. They whipped out their designer clubs and for hours whacked plenty of little white balls amid the naked trees and a malnourished landscape.
But in the past several months, another group of people has been doing some swinging of their own. During several rounds of community meetings, residents from the predominately Black South Shore and Woodlawn neighborhoods have been teeing off with the Chicago Park District. Despite issues of transparency, park officials in four months will break ground on a controversial plan to merge the golf courses in South Shore and Jackson Park to create one 18-hole championship caliber golf course designed by golf legend Tiger Woods. Currently, Jackson Park has an 18-hole golf course while South Shore’s facility has nine holes.
With the support of Mayor Rahm Emanuel, Chicago Park District Superintendent Mike Kelly hopes the $30 million facility will lure a major PGA championship to the South Side as early as 2021.
With little money in the park district’s $450 million annual operating budget, 80 percent of the project will be funded by private investors and leading golf industry professionals, raising concerns of elitism in neighborhoods that have been predominately Black for decades. Private funding for public facilities has become a common practice for the cash-strapped park district that has kept operating costs at a minimum in recent years because of budget cuts.
Meanwhile, the 63rd Street Beach remains an underfunded facility that gets little attention as a tunnel that connects the east and west portion of Jackson Park Harbor on both sides of Lake Shore Drive, but continues to be flooded with people during the Spring and Summer months. While Kelly aggressively pursued plans to build his grand championship golf course, little has been done to address the needs of places that are popular among Blacks. Golf is an expensive sport that has high equipment costs and playing fees. Somehow, park officials believe that a championship golf course in a Black neighborhood- one designed by a Black golf legend- could be a game changer on the South Side.
On January 11, despite community opposition, the Chicago Park District Board of Commissioners approved a $1.1 million contract to design and engineer the merger of the Jackson Park and South Shore golf courses.
While Board President Jesse Ruiz called the plans “preliminary,” to many residents the game was over. Park officials won and the real losers were many residents in South Shore and Woodlawn.
That same day, the mayor announced the formation of the Chicago Park District Golf Alliance to “upgrade facilities and enhance programming opportunities.”
From the start, it’s a plan that heavily divided residents in both neighborhoods. Supporters and opponents have been outspoken at packed community meetings, where Kelly and city officials have dodged questions of transparency with claims the project will help revitalize both neighborhoods.
For a while, it appeared that these goals had little chance of winning, but after throwing in some concessions and promises to please dissenters, Chicago Park District officials may have come out on top. By playing a game of Chicago-style politics that involved big key players and little community input, park officials engineered a major victory.
Kelly was the biggest force behind the effort. In August last year, Kelly sent a message to the mayor’s private email address informing him of the golf course proposal. The email was one of 2,700 messages that a judge forced the mayor to release after the Better Government Association filed a lawsuit, accusing Emanuel of doing city business on his personal email account.
In his message to Emanuel, Kelly expressed concern about community reaction to his proposal to merge South Shore and Jackson Park golf courses.
“We must be very cautious as this community typically weighs in loudly on any capital project that makes change,” Kelly said in his email to the mayor.
In addition, Kelly said, “It is critical for YOU that this project has the support of the Obama Foundation and the surrounding community.”
In that email, Kelly also mentioned plans to eliminate the portion of Marquette Road that runs from Cornell Drive to Lake Shore Drive. While the street divides parts of the Jackson Park golf course, Kelly suggested that it be closed to better serve the Obama library.
The proposal never went before a public hearing or Chicago Board meeting for review. A detailed plan of the finished golf course was never presented.
“When you hold community input sessions at the very last minute trying to create the appearance of public input when the park district and the mayor have been secretly putting together a plan for a long time, you create mistrust,” Juanita Irizarry of Friends of the Parks said in news reports.
As the project moves closer to breaking ground, the First Tee of Greater Chicago – a group from the affluent, predominately white Northwest suburb of Glenview – plans to move its headquarters to Jackson Park to expand its youth golf program, which had 1,000 participants last summer.
It’s one of several goals park officials hope to achieve from the project.
With the planned Barack Obama Presidential Center, park officials say the new championship golf course would bring jobs and the potential for new businesses. However, opponents aren’t buying it. And with several facilities used by Blacks in Woodlawn in poor shape, Kelly has drawn opposition from residents who are concerned the facility would be too expensive to use and would benefit only elite patrons who don’t live in the neighborhood.
The Crusader left phone and email messages for Kelly asking for comment, but he did not respond by press time on Wednesday.
Despite email and phone messages, the Crusader also did not get a response from Alderman Leslie Hairston (5th Ward), who hasn’t publicly expressed where she stands on the project.
Tiger Woods in a statement said he strongly supports the project.
“We want to design a course that everyone will enjoy,” he said.
One organization that supports the project is the Jackson Park Advisory Council, which gave its support in January after it held a meeting called by Alderman Hairston.
Kelly promised the council that playing fees for residents would remain below $50. Non-residents could pay at least $200. Based on the day of the week, residents currently pay as much as $30 to golf on Jackson Park’s 18-hole golf course. Players 17 or younger play free, but park officials are undecided if it will stay that way with the new golf course.