The 259 acre Fort Sheridan Preserve, which included Lake Michigan beachfront, bluffs, ravines, open space and golf course, was transferred to the Forest Preserves District by the U. S. Department of the Army in three increments between 1999 and 2001, and the District received the final deed in 2002. The property was accepted by the Forest Preserve District on behalf of Lake County residents, and the transfer was subject to a deed restriction requiring a golf course on the property, in addition to maintenance of the Ft. Sheridan Cemetery and protection and enhancement of open space. We are fortunate to have received this valuable property from the Army. A PowerPoint presentation reviewing the property’s history it can be accessed on the Forest Preserve’s website at http://www.lcfpd.org/docs/Fort-Sheridan-COW-Meeting-Slides.pdf.
Forest Preserve referendum in 1993 and 1999 allocated $5.5 million toward public access, road and restoration improvements on the property. Over the years, other funding from the Land Development Levy, Insurance Fund, grant funding and litigation settlement has been added to the $5.5 million, and to date $7.3 million has been expended on restoration of Hutchinson Ravine (for which the District won national awards), Janes Ravine, roads, trail bridge, a Lake Michigan bike/walking trail connecting to the McClory Trail, a wood chip trail along the wooded ravine, a stormwater management channel to protect the restored ravines from future erosion, demolition of structures, dirt pile remediation and litigation costs. Completion of the initial ravine, trail and public access work in the spring of 2006 provided Lake County residents with access to the Preserve’s wooded ravines and Lake Michigan beaches and bluffs, among Illinois’ most unique natural resources.
In the fall of 2003, with declining revenues and deteriorating course conditions, the District closed the old golf course anticipating, in good faith, that the reconstruction of the course would begin in 2004. However, the bids received in 2004 were more than $5 million over the budget estimates supplied to the Commissioners at the time they approved the project. While the voter-approved referendum funds are specifically designated for public access and restoration improvements, all Forest Preserve golf courses are accounted for in an Enterprise fund. Golf operations, including operating expenses and debt service to retire loans incurred to develop the course, are financed from course revenues.
During the course of bidding on the project, the District was also working aggressively toward closeout of the agreement with the residential developer, the Town of Ft. Sheridan, LLC (TOFS), to remove the illegal “open dump” of 235,000 cubic yards of dirt that TOFS had stored on the Forest Preserve property, and to demolish structures in accordance with our contract with TOFS. Since these stockpiles have a major impact on the design, budget and construction of the course, the District was unable to move forward on evaluating golf course options until the litigation was resolved. We did, however, move forward on the public access, restoration and environmental work at the Preserve.
The litigation was finally settled in August, 2008. Upon settling the litigation, the District immediately began the work to redistribute and clean the material piles, work on the restoration of Janes Ravine, and to complete drainage improvements on the site to protect the bluff and ravines.
With the litigation behind us, on January 30, 2009, the Board of Commissioners held a 6-hour meeting to discuss a process for moving forward. At this meeting:
Commissioners and the public heard a presentation from our golf market consultants, Economic Research Associates (ERA), regarding the economic and market feasibility of reconstructing and operating a golf course at the site. The reports confirmed the experience of our existing courses, which reflects a six-year decline in golf rounds even during better economic times. Our consultants’ reports can be accessed on our website at http://www.lcfpd.org/preserves/index.cfm?fuseaction=home.view&object_id=163&type=SF.
The Board of Commissioners heard approximately 90 minutes of thoughtful public comment on differing views for the future of this site. The District has created a link on its homepage www.lcfpd.org to submit public comments via email. Those wishing to comment will need to provide their name, address and other contact information so that we can verify comments.
Commissioner discussion followed the public comments. While a handful of Commissioners would like to see a traditional forest preserve master plan for the property, the majority of the Commissioners at the meeting spoke in favor of proceeding to analyze various options for fulfilling our commitment for a golf course under the deed restriction. Some Commissioners also wanted any potential course to be affordable for Lake County residents to play. Our analysis will have to weigh cost to play as it impacts rounds, revenue, and ability to cover operating expense and debt service costs.
When I began my tenure on the Board six years ago, I supported a golf course at Ft. Sheridan – not because I thought it was the best use for this natural resource treasure – but because the land had been accepted with a deed restriction requiring a golf course. While I understand the perspective of residents who would prefer not to have a golf course on the property, we did accept the land with this restriction, and I believe that we have a responsibility to analyze every fiscally-responsible option for fulfilling that commitment. I am also concerned about our commitment and obligation to all taxpayers for fiscal-responsibility and accountability, to ensure that any course will need to generate adequate revenues to cover course operating expenses and construction debt service, and not require taxpayer funding to subsidize golf operations.
Our next step is a Committee of the Whole meeting tentatively scheduled following the Forest Preserve Board meeting on March 17, 2009 to determine the process for how the Board wants to proceed to obtain the information needed to analyze one or more options.