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Golf Club Valuable Community Asset

Let’s start with the acknowledgement that there are no easy answers to the financial crunch faced by the Benson Golf Club. We also need to acknowledge that the City of Benson, and thus the taxpayers of the community, are the owners of the golf clubhouse and course.
That ownership comes with the responsibility to maintain it so that it continues to be an attractive asset. Benson’s City Council has taken on that challenge with an understanding that not everyone will support its actions.
Benson’s Golf Club has been falling behind financially for the past several years. Its losses are due to declining membership, a series of severe weather events that reduced the number of rounds being played by those paying greens fees and renting carts, and increasing costs of operation.
The falling membership can be tied directly to a dwindling population in Swift County and all of western Minnesota. Swift County’s population was nearing 16,000 in the 1950s, but sits under 10,000 today. District 777 schools had a population near 2,000 in the late 1960s and early 1970s; today at 861 it is well below half that. Look at the empty church pews that were once full. Consider the growing and persistent difficulty in getting people to participate in clubs, on city boards and commissions, and in community events.
The time it takes to golf and the cost have also been a factor. There was a time in Benson’s past when businesses helped offset the costs of memberships for their employees; maybe a couple do it today.
 Golf, which started rising in popularity in the 1990s and saw a spike in the early 2000s with Tiger Woods bringing a spotlight to the sport, has seen a decline in rounds played at courses across the country. The rise in golf’s popularity led every small community throughout western Minnesota to build a course or expand to 18 holes. As a result of the overbuilding, it became harder for every course to make a profit.
In a 2014 audit of the state’s municipally run golf courses, State Auditor Rebecca Otto found that many were losing a lot of money – far more than Benson’s course is losing. She said she provided the financial assessments of municipal courses to help voters decide if the courses are worth it to taxpayers. “Some will say, ‘We love our golf course and don’t mind subsidizing it.’ It is a quality of life issue.”
For Benson, our golf course is a matter about quality of life and economic development.
Benson doesn’t have a lot to attract people to settle here. We don’t have lakes. We don’t have shopping malls. Communities that have one or the other, or both, have a considerable advantage over us when it comes to persuading people to move their families to their cities. Even when our businesses provide jobs locally, too many who work at them, especially the management employees, opt to live in Willmar or around Lake Minnewaska to the north.
This challenge requires Benson to capitalize on what it does have. We have a great quality of life. We have good schools that provide kids with a wide range of opportunities. If you want your child to be in band, choir, or sports, he or she has a lot better chance of participating here than in a bigger city like Willmar.
Our complex of the Benson Golf Club, the municipal swimming pool and Ambush Park is one of our greatest visual assets we have in persuading people that this would be a enjoybale community to settle down in.
While the city has done a lot to maintain Ambush Park, and has invested in a modern water park with a water slide, it had done little until recently to upgrade the clubhouse and course. This summer it invested $226,000 in an improved irrigation system for the golf club’s aging system that was bought used in the early 1990s.
But that investment is just the start in addressing what needs to be done with the club’s ongoing financial needs. Today, the course requires an annual infusion of capital just to keep the doors open and the employees paid. It needs money to upgrade an aged equipment inventory. It needs an estimated $400,000 to repair and upgrade a deteriorating clubhouse that has been neglected for decades due to a lack of funds.
Benson’s original clubhouse was built in 1936-37 as part of the Work Projects Administration (WPA). It was a program that was started to provide jobs to millions of Americans out of work during the Great Depression.
Benson Golf Club’s stone wall is an iconic historic fixture of the community. Many who grew up here can remember riding their bikes along the wall to and from the Benson municipal swimming pool. On the occasions when we walked, we would sometimes climb on top of the wall walking the swayed path from pillar to pillar.
We’ve lost so much of Benson’s architectural and historic past. The railroad, against the community’s protests, tore down the brick depot that sat along the tracks just north of city hall. Fire took the three-story Paris Hotel. It sat where First Federal is today.
We tore down the Carnegie Library, which wasn’t handicapped accessible, was energy inefficient, was poorly designed for a modern library, and had no reasonable potential uses as the city looked to build a new library. Other buildings with lesser historic value, such as the Benson Market Elevator, are gone.
A taxpayer investment in the historic clubhouse is an investment in Benson’s past and future.
But the city doesn’t face the golf club costs alone. Already a $31,000 private pledge has been given to help with clubhouse renovation and the upgrade of the stone wall. Other grants and donations are being sought with a goal of raising $200,000. The city has indicated a willingness to consider matching that with $200,000 of its own.
Many in the community might question why so much money is being spent on the golf club. But the reality is that memberships have been rising and can only go so high before you start losing more than you gain. Also, you want the club to remain affordable for the average Benson area resident.
The reality is also that the Benson Golf Club is one of the few assets we have to convince people to bring their families to Benson. While not everyone uses the swimming pool, spends time in our parks, plays golf or goes to our library, they are valuable services that make Benson a better place to live – so we support them all.

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