|Golf course activists brace for vote|
|After months of door-to-door politicking, neither side is quite sure where voters will fall on raising taxes to buy an ailing business.|
|BY BRIAN BONNER|
|Article Last Updated:04/21/2007|
Robert Bonine already knows what he will do after Tuesday's referendum in which Mendota Heights voters decide whether to buy a nine-hole, par-3 golf course for $2.8 million.
Bonine is leading the campaign to defeat the referendum. If his side loses, he'll drink cheap wine. If his side wins, he'll buy the expensive champagne.
Right now, Bonine thinks he'll be reaching for the cheap stuff, but the vote will be close.
"It's turnout. They (referendum supporters) have got a hard core of 600 to 800 voters. If we get more than 800 votes, we'll win."
City Clerk Kathleen Swanson said the city has 8,220 registered voters. While turnout traditionally is high for general elections, often exceeding 70 percent, special-issue referendums attract fewer voters. Swanson expects turnout of, at most, 50 percent for Tuesday's vote.
Nonetheless, the civic debate has been intense, lively and inexpensive, costing each side no more than a few thousand dollars. It has been waged primarily through letters published in newspapers, speeches at public meetings, distribution of fliers and door-to-door campaigning.
Bonine is proving to be a competitive adversary.
He cried foul when he learned that the Henry Sibley High School boys and girls golf teams would participate in a fundraiser Sunday at the Mendota Heights Par 3 Golf Course at 1695 Dodd Road.
Bonine argued that the teams' participation was tantamount to an official endorsement of the referendum by Independent School District 197. Public agencies are supposed to be officially neutral on referendums. Bowing to the criticism, the golf teams withdrew their participation.
Robin Ehrlich, co-chair of the Save Par 3 Committee, said the event will be held from 1 to 4 p.m. as an open house. Ehrlich said attendees will be able to register for summer leagues, get golf tips, enter a golfing and putting contest and have hot dogs and pop.
"The golf teams were going to run the fundraiser for themselves, and we were maybe going to provide volunteers to help," Ehrlich said. "We didn't see it as much of an issue. The 'vote no' people saw it as, they were taking a position on the referendum."
Brian Ihrke, activities director at Henry Sibley High School, said he canceled his teams' participation after seeing a promotional flier distributed by the pro-referendum group.
"It made it seem that the high school was sponsoring the event," Ihrke said. "The best course of action is to distance Henry Sibley from this event."
The anti-referendum activists emphasize financial facts in its fliers.
Bonine's side believes city taxpayers would be making a mistake to raise their property taxes, by an average of $50 a year for the next 15 years, to buy a failing business.
"Not too many are in love with the Par 3, based on the poor attendance at the golf course," Bonine said.
Public golf courses across the metro area are hurting. Some have closed, and others are losing money as the sport's popularity wanes. An owner of the Mendota Heights course once estimated that the property could fetch more than three times its price if housing could be built on the 17 acres of land.
On Dakota County's Web site, the course's assessed market value is only $542,000.
Ehrlich said the appraised value "is an irrelevant fact," because any buyer would be forced to pay what the land is worth, not its assessed value as a golf course.
"The land is zoned as (residential). That's the way it needs to be appraised," Ehrlich said. "In the case of the golf course, the land is very valuable. If they subdivide it, they will get more than $3 million for their land. They would never sell it for $500,000. So the voters are getting a deal by buying it."
If people suddenly stopped golfing, Ehrlich said, the city could sell the land for a profit.
The pro-referendum group emphasizes community values in its pitch and promotes the golf course as a place "where memories are made."
The decline in golf's popularity aside, the pro-referendum crowd argues that the course is a community asset that shouldn't be allowed to disappear for the sake of 19 new high-priced homes that could be built there. Take away the purchase price, they say, and the course operates comfortably in the black.
Those in favor of buying the course have won the lawn-sign battle. Ehrlich said his group printed and distributed 150, while Bonine complains that vandals have destroyed 10 of his group's 50 signs.
Win or lose, Ehrlich said he's surprised by the intensity of the debate over an issue that is not a matter of life and death. But the issue is easy to understand, and everyone seems to have an opinion.
"I have found that people have made up their minds, and it's difficult to convince them," Ehrlich said. He heads into Tuesday's vote with optimism.
"I think we're going to win," he said. "But I wouldn't be surprised if it's a close election."
Brian Bonner can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or 651-228-2173.
If You Vote
The polls will be open from 7 a.m. to 8 p.m. Tuesday. Consult the city's Web site at www.mendota-heights.com for details on where to vote.
The Mendota Heights City Council will meet at 8:30 p.m. Tuesday in City Hall to review and certify the results of the golf course referendum.