Plant site fit to be teed Developers say they'll stick
with Spirit Mt. plan
BY BAIRD HELGESON
Duluth News Tribune
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
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
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
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."