In just four months, Chicago plans to break ground on an audacious project — the refashioning of two sleepy golf courses on the South Side into a high-caliber course that borders two struggling neighborhoods plagued by unemployment and violence.
The $30 million-plus project, announced last month, calls for combining the public Jackson Park and South Shore links into a championship-level destination designed by Tiger Woods' company. The remake of the century-old courses comes as President Barack Obama prepares to leave office and raise funds for the construction of a presidential library on a nearby slice of Jackson Park.
The two projects are among several privately funded endeavors poised to radically transform the landmark park co-designed more than a century ago by noted landscape architect Frederick Law Olmsted.
But the lakefront golf course project has been conceived and planned largely out of public view, rankling park watchdogs who say the community has had no voice in such a significant remaking of public lands. The plan also has raised a host of questions, from the project's feasibility, to its economic impact in the surrounding area, to its effects on the graceful park and its longtime users.
Some of those questions are likely to be aired Monday evening when a Park District official discusses the project with a neighborhood advisory panel — one of the district's first public discussions of the project.
Its backers — who include Mayor Rahm Emanuel, the Park District Chief Executive Michael Kelly and a bevy of influential golf industry leaders — see it as a once-in-a-generation opportunity to put Chicago on the national golf map and at the same time draw tourists to the South Side, spur badly needed economic activity, create jobs and introduce more low-income children to golf and its caddying and scholarship opportunities.
"It will be a real investment — an economic engine for the neighborhood," Emanuel said after the plan was announced.
Getting it built, however, is another matter.
Efforts to raise private donations to cover at least 70 percent to 80 percent of project's costs will go head-to-head with fundraising for the nearby presidential library. Additional funding will be needed for associated infrastructure, including underground walkways connecting the courses and easing neighborhood access to the beach.
The push for community support promises to be messy as well, with deep fissures having formed already. And if the project does take off, urban strategists are uncertain whether a championship-level golf course can spur economic revival in the surrounding Woodlawn and South Shore neighborhoods, which have languished for decades.
The reliance on private money isn't new: The city tapped its wealthiest families and corporate denizens to help finance Millennium and Maggie Daley parks downtown before they opened in 2004 and 2014, respectively. But this project pushes those boundaries, setting up a not-for-profit to raise cash for a sport historically associated with a well-heeled crowd.
"The IRS could say, 'Come on, golf?' " said Daniel Borochoff, president of CharityWatch, which tracks not-for-profits. "They will want to see benefits to the community at large, not just for high-tech people and investment bankers."
And park watchdog groups are chafing at what they say has been a lack of community involvement.
The plan's proponents "have been working on this for many months, with no public input or review," said Margaret Schmid, co-coordinator of Jackson Park Watch. "And now, with a great deal of fanfare, they say, 'Here it is. You'll love it.' "
Schmid's suspicions were confirmed with the recent release of an email sent from Kelly, the Park District head, to Emanuel, informing the mayor of the proposal in August. The correspondence, to Emanuel's private account, was among 2,700 pages of emails released last month after Emanuel's administration settled an open records lawsuit with the Better Government Association.
Kelly's missive expressed concern about neighborhood reaction to the proposal and warned of media exposure if Tiger Woods were to pay a site visit. "We must be very cautious," Kelly wrote to the mayor, "as this community typically weighs in loudly on any capital project that makes change."
At the same time, the email stressed the importance of corralling neighborhood support. "It is critical for YOU that this project has the support of the Obama Foundation and the surrounding community," Kelly wrote to the mayor. "Furthermore, the community should initiate the request to improve the golf courses."
Asked about the email, Kelly said in an interview, "There was no secrecy." He said he created the document knowing that letters can be accessed under the Illinois Freedom of Information Act.
"I wrote that very thoughtfully so that if it ever ended up in the public's hands, in the press' hands, that that letter would stand on its own," he said. "And that letter stands on its own."
The golf course project has not been unveiled or voted on at a Chicago Park Board meeting, nor have there been any public hearings. A detailed plan is not yet finished, park officials say. Friday afternoon, the Park District posted an agenda for next Wednesday's board meeting that indicates the panel will consider awarding a design and engineering contract for the project.
Kelly offered reassurance that the community would be involved.
"We're at the beginning stages of this, we're not at the end, and there will be lengthy community discussions," Kelly said. "I'm not going to put a shovel in the ground until the community knows what we're doing." He expressed optimism this could be accomplished within the current timetable, which calls for starting work on the South Shore course this spring.
Project leaders say they have already solicited input from golfers and community representatives.
Discussion should open up further Monday when a Park District official attends a meeting of the Jackson Park Advisory Council, the liaison group between park officials and neighborhood residents. The group’s leader expressed support for the project.
The rehab "will combine two mediocre courses ... and make a great one," said Louise McCurry, head of the group. "So when our African-American President Obama comes back to play golf or bring friends in, he'll have a place he can be proud of."
The Obama Foundation, which is raising private funds for the presidential library, said in a prepared statement that it is excited to see additional investment in Jackson Park.
Winning public support is critical, Kelly said in a recent interview. "We're not in the business of doing things nobody wants."
At the moment, sentiments diverge widely.
Roseland resident Derrick Colton, an executive at a management consulting firm, likes to squeeze in an early morning round before heading to work downtown. The overhaul, he said, "would be awesome," both for golfers and for developing the area as a tourism magnet.
But golfer Fred Van Buren, who is retired from a real estate career on the South Side, sees it differently: "It's almost an insult to make a course for wealthy athletes to play on right across from a community that's in trouble."
Others are more conflicted.
Peter Wawire, a social services director at a South Side church, welcomes the chance to polish his game on a tournament-level course but wonders how often he'll be able to afford it.
"I might be able to use the driving range but not be able to play as often as I'd like," he said during a late-fall outing at Jackson Park. "I need to watch costs."
Kelly hopes to keep greens fees for city residents below $50. Non-residents could pay $200 or more. Now, the top fee for 18 holes is about $30, depending on the date played.
Players 17 or younger are offered free play on the city's six courses now, but it remains undecided whether that will continue at a reconfigured Jackson Park/South Shore course, Kelly said.
The project's backers emphasize that the renovated public facility, which will include a shorter family-oriented course and practice facility, will not expand on the current golf courses' footprint.
And Woods, for his part, said in a statement when the project was announced, "We want to design a course that everyone will enjoy."
The donation-funded rehab "is the first model like this for a golf course that I have ever seen," said Mark Rolfing, an NBC/Golf Channel analyst and DeKalb native who is spearheading the effort. "It could be the future of sustainable urban golf."
Raising the money in a more traditional way, by finding investors who are seeking a return, would have required pushing up fees beyond what would be acceptable for a course in a public park, said Rolfing, who had a $90,000 Park District contract last year to assess the project's feasibility. He now is president of the Chicago Parks Golf Alliance, a newly created not-for-profit that must raise the funds.
Analysts and golf industry experts were largely receptive to the idea.
The initiative "is far from a slam-dunk, but it's creative and I think they have a shot," said the sports facilities expert Marc Ganis, president of Sportscorp. "The fact that it's a Tiger Woods-designed course makes it attractive, and I imagine it will be attractive to minorities who have done quite well for themselves and may have been shut out of golf previously."
The lead-off donors include prominent figures like Mike Keiser, a prolific golf course developer whose projects include the Bandon Dunes Golf Resort on the Oregon coast, and the private equity executive Rodney Goldstein, who has a long history of civic involvement on the South Side and will head up the fundraising.
Public money will be used to finance the portion of the project not covered by the fundraising and possibly for the construction of two pedestrian underpasses. The Park District declined to estimate the cost of those passageways.
The project will require some tree removal, Kelly said, but the district is committed to replacing them. "We will leave this better than when we found it," he said.
The proposal comes at a time when the golf industry is under pressure nationwide because of the development of too many courses and declining participation. Analysts, though, see the Chicago project as different.
"I'm not a fan of most golf projects," said Casey Alexander, senior vice president at Compass Point Research & Trading. "But this isn't Florida, which is overbuilt. ... There's a real downtown element to Chicago that is highly underserved. I can see this as an afternoon getaway for the Chicago business community."
Central to the proposal is landing a PGA Tour event, like the BMW Championship, as early as 2021. "You can generate enough revenue to offset any routine operational losses in a year," said Oliver Hedge, a golf course appraiser.
A tougher question is whether such a course will feed the local economy — either through purchasing from neighborhood suppliers or by sparking development of nearby restaurants, entertainment venues or hotels, as envisioned by local officials.
The project will create jobs in construction, caddying and possibly park operations, Kelly said, noting a job creation projection is not yet available.
"I do believe the local business community will create a lot of jobs in the hospitality and supply business," Kelly said. "There's a buzz."
But one urban development expert, Robert Weissbourd, head of RW Ventures, is skeptical about the potential for a significant ripple effect.
"People go to golf, not to golf and hang out," he said.
"It's not a reason not to do the project," which could enhance the appeal of the South Side, he added. "But I wouldn't be putting in big public subsidies because you're not going to get them back in that way."
Tribune reporter Teddy Greenstein contributed.