Town & Country Club’s storied 18-hole golf course will not be sold to  the University of Saint Thomas to expand its campus and accommodate upgraded athletic facilities. The club’s board of directors on February 22 rejected UST’s unsolicited $61.4 million offer just days after it became public.

UST moved up from NCAA Division III to Division I this school year, and is still seeking a new site for a hockey arena, softball and baseball fields and a training facility. Town & Country hired the law firm of Best & Flanagan to help it review the potential sale of the 94-acre golf course. Located at the northwest corner of Marshall and Cretin avenues, it is two short blocks from the UST campus.

In an initial email to members, club president Matt Winkel said the club leadership had “serious doubts” about the offer. The sale would have to be balanced against the club’s main purpose of providing recreational and social functions for its members. Tax issues were another factor, given the windfall the club would receive through the sale. Then there was the question of the club’s status as a nonprofit entity. Winkel said it was the duty of club leadership to examine the many issues raised and carefully analyze the UST proposal.

The possibility that the golf course could be sold sparked a firestorm on social media. The course has long been used by the public for sledding and dog walking. Many residents wrote that they did not want to see UST’s campus expand any further. Concerns were also raised about game-day traffic and other disruptions.

“Over the last week, the Town & Country Club board of directors carefully reviewed the UST proposal, explored questions related to the proposed transaction and, most importantly, listened to input from our members,” club leadership stated on February 22. “Having completed that work, the board voted unanimously to reject the university’s proposal and inform them that we have no interest in any further engagement on this topic. Town & Country Club is not for sale.”

UST followed that up with a statement of its own. “We understand and respect this decision,” said Andy Ybarra, UST associate vice president for public relations and communications. “We appreciate that Town & Country’s leadership brought our interest forward to its membership, and we thank them for their consideration.”

The first round of golf in Minnesota was played at Town & Country in 1893. The club, which was launched as a social organization near Lake Como in 1887, moved to its Merriam Park location in 1890.

 

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The possibility that the golf course could be sold sparked a firestorm on social media. The course has long been used by the public for sledding and dog walking. Many residents wrote that they did not want to see UST’s campus expand any further. Concerns were also raised about game-day traffic and other disruptions. Some questioned why UST does not upgrade the facilities on its existing  campus.

The purchase offer also raised questions for UST students and alumni. UST’s student news source, Tommie Media, covering a February 21 meeting about UST finances, reported that university revenue has been affected in recent years by lower than anticipated enrollment. UST president Julie Sullivan said there will be no mass layoffs or cuts to employee compensation or benefits.

Significant hurdles for both parties in sale

Two other significant hurdles stood in the way of the land sale. One was the conditional use permit under which UST operates. All colleges and universities in Saint Paul have conditional use permits, which among other things set campus boundaries. 

UST’s current boundaries were set in 2004 after a long and contentious fight with neighbors over campus expansion. While UST was allowed to expand onto the two blocks between Summit, Grand, Cleveland and Cretin avenues, it had to sell other properties it owned outside of the campus boundaries. Expanding the campus to include the golf course would have required going back to the Saint Paul Planning Commission and likely the City Council to amend its conditional use permit.

Another big issue for Town & Country Club members was their potential tax liability from the proceeds of a sale. Town & Country operates under a state property tax open space program, which allows some taxes to be deferred. The club currently pays about $185,000 per year in property taxes for the golf course and another $120,000 for the club facilities directly across Otis Avenue from the course.

If the property were sold, that would require catching up on property taxes for seven years at a cost of $12 million or more. The 300 or so club members would have received some kind of payment had the sale to UST been approved. The payment to each member had been estimated at $160,000, but deferred taxes would have eaten up a big chunk of the proceeds.

The country club’s decision now has Saint Thomas looking at other sites for new athletic facilities, including a 13.5-acre parcel at Highland Bridge in Highland Park. UST officials have met twice in recent months with the Highland District Council and Ryan Companies regarding its possible expansion on the former Ford Motor Company site and Canadian Pacific Railway yard.

UST’s men’s and women’s hockey teams are currently playing about eight miles from campus in the arena at Saint Thomas Academy in Mendota Heights. UST’s baseball diamond is on the original campus. Its soccer and softball fields overlap on the South (former Saint Paul Seminary) campus and that could cause conflicts in the future with games and practices, UST officials have said.

— Jane McClure

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