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Plant site fit to be teed Developers say they'll stick with Spirit Mt. plan

BY BAIRD HELGESON
Duluth News Tribune
07/01/02

Developers of the proposed Spirit Mountain golf course and lodge should look to build the project on the U.S. Steel site instead, according to a report by three architecture students at the University of Minnesota in the Twin Cities. "We believe that the negatives to developing a golf course at Spirit Mountain at this time are resounding," the 14-page, June 19 report said. "We believe the positive aspects of the redevelopment of the U.S. Steel site are important and have not been taken into account at this point, especially regarding alternative golf course development strategies."

Golf course development at the 500-acre former mill site near Morgan Park has been rumored for years. But the report is the first formal document to suggest a golf course at the U.S. Steel site is an alternative to publicly owned Spirit Mountain. Duluth city councilors are scheduled to consider ap- proval of permits for the Spirit Mountain project July 8.

The report noted significant environmental, religious and historical reasons against development at Spirit Mountain. "Even though much of the proposed golf course design incorporates wetland preservation, chemicals and sediments used in maintaining the golf course will eventually leak into the wetlands, polluting and eventually destroying them," the report said. Developers want to build a championship, 18-hole golf course on Spirit Mountain between Interstate 35 and the St. Louis River.

The project has endured six years of planning, debate and a lawsuit filed by groups opposed to the project. The project is blocked by the federal Land and Water Conservation grants used to create the Spirit Mountain Recreation Area in the early 1970s. The privately-owned Spirit Mountain villas are already in violation, and the proposed hotel would also violate the grants that require the land be used for public recreation.

Spirit Mountain developers George Hovland and Kent Oliver dispute the environmental concerns raised by the report, saying they plan to use high-tech filtration systems to prevent chemicals from leaching into area wetlands and streams. Developers have already invested more than $1.3 million in the Spirit Mountain site and aren't willing to look at moving the project to the U.S. Steel land, they said. Hovland and Oliver already own or control the land needed for the Spirit Mountain site and are waiting for the city to resolve the federal grant violations blocking the project. "It doesn't make any sense to move it," Hovland said. And if they could do it all over again, Hovland said he and Oliver probably wouldn't have opted for the U.S. Steel site six years ago when they unveiled the plan. "The cost of cleanup would have just been too much," he said.

A course on the steel plant site could parallel Pebble Beach, the report said, comparing the site to the championship course on the Monterey Peninsula in California. The report also said the geographic hills and valleys created by cleanup would make the site an interesting and challenging course. Over the years, U.S. Steel dumped large quantities of hazardous chemicals on the land. In 1984, the federal environmental Protection Agency included the site in its Superfund program and added it to a national priority list for cleanup. To encourage cleanup and development of Superfund sites, the EPA offers grant money to developers and agrees not to sue them in the future for additional cleanup.

The money and agreement not to sue could be a huge incentive for a golf course developer, the report said. The U.S. Steel land contains existing water, sewer and electricity that would also save the developers money, the report said. The Spirit Mountain site does not. "I fully support us looking into this," said Councilor Russ Stover, who represents the area. "It would be a win-win. We could use land that nobody's using and preserve a public forest." A Minneapolis developer looked at building a golf course, housing and possibly a marina on the site two years ago. John Hinzmann, with SEH Inc. of Duluth, drafted preliminary sketches of a $30 million plan that included an 18-hole golf course, with the possibility for nine more, and single-family housing and condominiums.

But Mayor Gary Doty didn't appear enthusiastic about the plan and the developer eventually killed the project after negotiations with U.S. Steel stalled, Hinzmann said. At that point, the project was dead, he said. Hinzmann said the developer did not want to be identified for the story. Doty denied any lack of enthusiasm for the failed project. "If someone out there wants to get control of the land and make that investment, more power to them," Doty said Thursday. But Doty remains committed to the Spirit Mountain project to help the struggling public recreation area survive. "Make no bones about it, this is an economic development project," he said.

Developers who want to turn the U.S. Steel site into a golf course could model their project after a new course built on an old copper mine in Anaconda, Mont. Mine owners had to clean up more than 100 years of pollution on land designated a Superfund site in 1983. Government officials and mine owners decided to transform the Superfund site into a top-notch golf facility in the late-1990s. They hired the firm owned by golf legend Jack Nicklaus to design the course. "Designers were confronted by a number of environmental issues related to the site," said Steve Wickliffe, golf director. "As a result of the mining operations, the soil had contained concentrations of arsenic, lead and copper.

One of the major concerns was the erosion of contaminated soils into the nearby Warm Springs Creek during storm runoff." The golf course routing took advantage of natural and man-made features, he said. Several holes on the front nine are along stone smelting ovens, flues and brick walls. Four holes are routed to take strategic advantage of Warm Springs Creek. Minnesota Pollution Control Agency officials could not say whether a golf course project would work on the U.S. Steel site.

Top officials with the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources, which has been helping the city clear up the federal issues blocking the Spirit Mountain project, said the agency is neutral on a site. "Our role is not to make a choice for the city," said DNR spokesman Dennis Stauffer. "If the city wants to consider a different location, we probably wouldn't object."

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