Ramping up for Downtown golf

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September 3, 2002 // UPDATED 1:30 pm - April 30, 2007
By: Kevin Featherly
Kevin Featherly

175-yard drives atop a parking ramp? Golf center promoters say they're ready to tee off.

Spend an hour with Tim Thompson and Clayt Tabor, you'll likely come away feeling the warmth of their enthusiasm for what they think truly is an awesome idea -- golf in Downtown.

"I've never had anyone say, 'This is dumb.' Everyone says, 'God, this is cool,'" said Thompson, founder and, with Tabor, managing partner of Golf Acquisition Group.

Thompson stood atop the 7th Street parking ramp across from the Target Center; one of three massive I-394 parking structures funded by the federal government and owned by the state Department of Transportation.

With a sweep of one arm, Thompson traced the space on the roof where Golf Acquisition hopes to build an 18-hole, city-block-wide indoor putting range. With the other arm he mapped out a 175-yard-long, 120-foot-tall, fabric-enclosed year-round driving range.

Then he turned and pointed toward the Downtown skyline that, from this vantage point, is nearly as impressive as a mountain range.

"I worked Downtown for almost 25 years, and I've never seen that before," Thompson said. "That's the market."

Thompson figures half of the 160,000 people who office Downtown are golfers. If he and his partner get their way, many people will begin skipping lunch to trim their handicaps by Christmas 2003.

Among things they'd find at "Downtown Golf" would be synthetic nylon greens that Thompson claimed would "rival the best putting greens on the planet." Tabor said the greens' contours can be altered, and the holes can be moved.

"Nobody will be able to memorize that," Tabor said. "It's like you're visiting a whole bunch of different golf courses every month."

Customers also would get heated tee bays, enclosed on three sides to furnish no colder than a "sweatshirt-weather environment" on any but the coldest winter days. Anyone could walk in, pay about $10, and swat as many golf balls as he or she could swing at in a half hour.

The driving range won't be as long as most golfers can drive a ball, Tabor said, but it will be tall enough to see the trajectory of the ball and know whether a drive is a hook or slice.

Tabor said that some of the tee bays will even be assembled with sand traps, giving players a chance to practice escaping bunkers. "There's a great short-game emphasis on this project," he said.

The $25 million facility will also feature a bar and wall-sized computerized screens for virtual 300-yard drives.

Private memberships will be $100 month, providing access to a cigar lounge, conference rooms, wireless Internet access and private tee bays. They also could schedule some time with pro instructors to work out the kinks in their swings.

"This is not miniature golf," said Thompson. "This is the real deal."

Fore, floored

Several years ago, a similar idea made some waves Downtown. Thompson was a financial backer of that group, which was known publicly as St. Anthony's Golf Academy. It was being pitched as a way to get use out of the Minneapolis Armory, South 5th Street and 5th Avenue South. That idea failed, as did another plan to drop the facility atop the new Downtown Greyhound bus station, 950 Hawthorne Ave.

With all the setbacks, other financial backers dropped out. But Thompson kept pushing, eventually recruiting Tabor as a partner.

Both men say that the project, which has yet to obtain several needed state and city approvals, would be privately funded. (The city contributed $15,000 to a feasibility study several years ago.)

The Minneapolis Community Development Agency (MCDA) is working to secure ramp "air rights" from the state, then subleasing to the developers. MCDA Project Manager George Kissinger said the state will likely make a decision by Oct. 1.

A city hook

While there would be no direct public subsidies, the financing plan would put the city at some risk. Golf Acquisition Group seeks $6.5 million in "subordinate revenue bonds" to pay for a "build-able slab," a new three-acre upper layer to add two new stories without removing any parking spaces on what now is the ramp's roof.

Lenders have agreed to sell the bonds, but only if the city guarantees one year's principal and one year's interest in the event of a default -- $635,000 said Tabor.

In exchange, Tabor and Thompson propose to give the city 20 percent of their net profits in addition to taxes; the partners estimate that would total about $200,000 a year. The MCDA estimated in 2001 that the golf complex would generate $260,000 in property taxes.

"I truly believe this is a good deal for the city," Thompson said. "If the city's putting something up, the city should get something in return."

The plan would have to be approved by the City Council and the mayor.

The developers face risk, too. Kissinger said they have kicked in $2.6 million of their own money toward the project. "The equity is there," he said. "These guys, I think, have thought this thing out well."

However, as officials grapple with a lousy economy, it is possible that the financing plan might appear problematic.

"In a real-world sense," Kissinger said, "if you've got these revenue bonds out there and there is a default, the city will do everything it can to avoid having a long-term default on those bonds."

In other words, while the city's legal obligation might be only one year's principal and one year's interest, in a default situation, the city could pick up the whole 15-year bond to avoid hurting its credit rating or losing its ability to fund some other project through the same kind of financing arrangement later on.

However, Kissinger remains enthusiastic about the project.

"It has a lot of plusses to it," Kissinger said. "I don't see any down[side] to the development itself. It's a place for Downtown workers and Downtown residents to pursue their golf habit."