What's the best use of Soldiers Field?
When the Rochester American Legion purchased the property from Dr. Christopher Graham in 1926, the intent was to turn pasture land into a golf course. For a rapidly growing city of 13,000 people, a golf course was on the top of Rochester’s wish list. It was on the edge of town, perfectly nestled between the Mayo Clinic and the surrounding driftless area.
Over 90 years later, the ‘edge of town’ has quickly become the center of town. And as land downtown becomes more valuable by the day, questions have emerged concerning the future of Rochester’s first golf course and surrounding public space: how will Soldiers Field Park change as Rochester grows, and who will the changes affect most?
The master plan
Some of those questions were answered in 2016, when two Minneapolis-based design groups collaborated with city officials to form a 10-year master plan. Out of four concepts presented in the plan, the group recommended one potential concept that would shorten the golf course from 18 holes to 9, “enhance” the pool area and add splash pads, and scrap one of the softball fields in favor of extra green space.
The master plan looks as far forward as 2025, so any large-scale changes are likely still years away. Even then, park officials say plans may still be tweaked as time go by.
“One of our main priorities is to update the master plan,” said Paul Widman, director of Rochester’s Parks and Rec. “Even since 2016, we’ve had a lot of requests from park users that we hadn’t heard from before.”
One such group of park users made their voice heard this summer, and may have permanently changed the future of Soldiers Field by doing so.
A soft landing
With signs scattered across Rochester’s front yards and a keen social media presence, the Save the Track campaign was in the spotlight for most of the summer. The saga, once the talk of the town, quieted only after the Park Board voted to hold off on the repaving process. It was a victory for the nearly 1,000 members of the Facebook group, who now have to help raise funds to renovate the aging facility.
“It’s always nice to see people get involved in civic engagement, no matter what the cause is,” said Tiffany Piotrowicz, owner of TerraLoco in Rochester and member of the Save the Track group. “That’s all we’re looking for… we want community engagement, and we want to see the city, the decision makers, listen to that engagement and make decisions for the entire community.”
Widman said the initial backlash was surprising, but the outcry helped the city make an informed decision on the track’s future.
“I was never excited about asphalt, but with the funding we had available and knowledge about maintenance, knowing it would be an issue, we didn’t see a soft-surface running track as a priority,” Widman said in an August interview. “Now that we’ve had discussions with [Save the Track], we’re getting closer to a balance.”
The track dispute was the first major instance of public pushback to the park’s master plan, but it most likely won’t be the last.
What’s on tap?
When Soldiers Field’s golf course opened in the 1920s, it was the only public course in Rochester. Now, it’s one of a dozen within a half-hour’s drive from the city center. As golf’s demographics continue to skew older, local officials have raised red flags about the long-term viability of a full 18-hole course downtown. Currently, the course takes up 70 percent of the park.
“The big question that comes up, not only in this community but nationally, is what are we going to do with municipal golf?” remarked Widman. “We have to look at demand, and does that demand justify other community demands?”
According to the money flowing in and out of the course, demand is declining. Widman said that even though the public courses — which also include Northern Hills, Eastwood and Hadley — bring in a combined $1.3 million in revenue each year (Soldiers Field directly brings in about $165,000 in green fees), routine maintenance and renovations put the downtown course in the red. Initial agreements in 2016 meant future planning would focus on areas north of the course, but the new numbers may change plans, he said.
“It may have been said in some park board meetings that we would hold off on golf for the next 20 years, but it was never carved in stone that we would never come back to golf,” Widman said. “Any planning document is flexible. It is our guideline, and we look at it as firm, but the way we approach it — as the city dynamics change, if demand changes — we bring it back to the board to update and look at what needs to be changed.”
Upkeep has been an issue for Soldiers Field’s pool as well, which closed in 2017 to repair excessive leaks. Maintenance has grown more difficult as the years go by. Rochester Park Board President Vern Yetzer said an alternative may be to replace the aging facility with splash pads, but the history of the site may get in the way.
“As much as people like [splash pads],” Yetzer said, “and get excited about them, I’m sure there will be a lot of controversy about the old pool.”
When the city purchased the property from American Legion Post 92 in 1927, they accepted the plan to turn the land into a “public park with recreational facilities for our youth that would encourage amateur athletics and would be dedicated to soldiers of all wars.”
A plaque commemorating the purchase says there was a need for “a well equipped athletic field to promote community welfare.”
As the track saga indicated, different people have different ideas of what constitutes “community welfare” and encouraging “amateur athletics.” Placing priorities on those tenets will be paramount for city officials, who have to walk a tightrope when planning for the future.
“In our planning, and I think I can speak for the board on this, we see both of those as a priority,” Widman said. “Community gathering is such a huge part of what parks and recreation brings to the table. That’s something we want to emphasize, but not at the expense of people who use the park for fitness and wellness. You have to do both.”
An example of this tightrope takes place every June, when Rochesterfest takes over the Soldiers Field track for about ten days. The placement of heavy food trucks on a soft track surface frustrated some runners. Piotrowicz noted the trucks made ruts in the track, further deteriorating an already-aged facility.
“Vehicles weren’t on the track before, and now they are,” Piotrowicz said. “That made conditions worse. It wasn’t great to begin with, but it created new issues.”
However, with Rochesterfest having grown too big for its former downtown site, Widman said the planning process can’t always work perfectly.
“It’s kind of like a futon,” he said. “You’re trying to get something to work for multiple uses, and none of them are really ideal. Whether you’re sitting or lying down, a futon isn’t great for either one — but it works. Sometimes that’s what this planning looks like.”
While park traffic will slow down as winter sets in, the next steps in Soldiers Field’s metamorphosis may be right around the corner.
Any changes to the track must be completed by Rochesterfest 2020, set for June 22-30. While the Save the Track group works to secure $50,000 worth of funding in those nine months, Piotrowicz said she’s looking to the future of the park as a whole.
“This is our cause because we’re runners, but it’s more than that,” she aid. “There’s a lot of people that will be affected by the changes made at Soldiers Field, and it’s much more than just the track.”
It’s a sentiment echoed by Widman, especially when factoring in the rich history of the park.
“As we put new amenities into Soldiers, we need to honor the history and design in the way we do the placemaking,” said Widman, now in his fifth year leading the parks department. “If we put a modern splash pad in, one thing I don’t want to see is fiberglass frogs and flowers squirting water. It should be architecturally designed to reflect the history.”
Park officials say, even with any potential changes, the total acreage of park space at Soldiers Field will remain the same.
All alterations to the course, including concepts outlined in the master plan, require approval from the Rochester Park Board. That group typically meets the first Tuesday of each month at 4:30 p.m. in Room 104 of City Hall.
📝 Article written by Isaac Jahns
📷 Cover photo by William Forsman
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