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McFeely: Closed warming houses have nothing to do with golf, Vettel says

Joel Vettel stands in the Island Park gazebo Thursday, June 15, 2017, near downtown Fargo. Vettel has been working with Fargo Parks for nearly a year. Michael Vosburg / Forum Photo Editor

News item: The Fargo Park District will spend nearly $1.3 million to buy the clubhouse at Rose Creek Golf Course, and there might be more costs to come. The 25-year-old building is in need of some upgrades and repairs, although the exact cost and who will pay is not yet decided.

News item: Of the 17 outdoor ice skating rinks operated by the park district, only six have operating lights and warming houses this winter. The district says this will save about $30,000 per year.

Math item: $1.3 million could keep all the outdoor rinks lit with functioning warming houses for 43 years, going by the district's cost savings estimate.

And some Fargoans have already taken notice. A letter to the editor in The Forum ripped the park district for spending so much money on a golf clubhouse while shuttering warming houses.

Not so fast, says Joel Vettel, the park district's executive director. The closing of warming houses and shutting off the lights has less to do with saving money than it does with usage and staffing, he says.

"The numbers really dictated why we decided to close some of these warming houses. We had sites where the numbers we were seeing over the course of the winter were so low. At one location, we had less than 100 people through the entire winter," Vettel said. "It's hard to justify paying a person there, working for us, and have nobody show up. It's hard for somebody to sit there and have nobody show up the entire time they are there. People were asking, 'Why am I doing this?'"

Vettel also mentioned the safety of park district employees manning the warming houses as an issue. Imagine a young person sitting alone in a remote area inside a building, with no other people to provide eyes, ears or protection.

"Very little of the decision was because of money," Vettel said. "That was part of it, but a minor part." In other words, don't draw a line between a golf clubhouse and closed warming houses.

It's easy to do, given the amount spent on the Rose Creek clubhouse.

It's been mostly closed since 2016 when owner Earlyne Hector shut down the Seasons at Rose Creek restaurant and put the building on the market. Hector and her then-husband Fred owned the clubhouse building as part of a long-ago deal when they donated the land on which Rose Creek Golf Course was built. The Hectors leased space inside the building to the park district so it could operate a golf pro shop and grill in the lower level.

The listed price for the clubhouse was about $2.5 million, but Vettel said the park district negotiated it down to $1.3 million. Too much taxpayer money? By comparison, the clubhouse and pro shop at Edgewood Golf Course in north Fargo, opened in 2007, cost more than $2 million.

That doesn't mean Rose Creek is a bargain, but the park district had little choice. Vettel said it looked at all options, including building a new clubhouse and pro shop somewhere on the property. In a decent year, the golf course at Rose Creek has about 26,000 rounds played on it. That translates into about 12,000 or 13,000 people. Those people need to be served.

"We certainly understand people are going to scrutinize this as citizens of Fargo, but we also realize we have to make decisions every day that we feel are in the best interests, not only for quality of life but in the best interest of the district," Vettel said.

The park district will try to find a local businessman to lease and operate the bar and restaurant at Rose Creek. Vettel said that person might be required to pay for needed kitchen upgrades, saving the park district money. There is no established timeline.

As for the skating rinks, Vettel said the park district is working with neighborhood groups to find a solution. The district has already turned the lights back on at some rinks.

"And we're looking at the possibility of people volunteering at some of the warming houses so we can open them," Vettel said. "It has less to do with money and more to do with people."

Mike McFeely
Mike McFeely is a WDAY (970 AM) radio host and a columnist for The Forum. You can respond to Mike's columns by listening to AM-970 from 8:30-11 a.m. weekdays.
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