Putting Green

Christopher Henderson

From his office at the IDS Center, where a pair of college debate-team trophies sit on display beside a stack of brightly colored architectural sketches, Kevin Porter casts his eyes down 40 stories. "See the bus sign? That's where it was supposed to be," he says, pointing to the flat roof of the old Greyhound bus station at First Avenue and Ninth Street. "We loved the visibility. It would have been the first thing people see driving into the city on 394. And it would have been skywayed."

"It" was to be, in Porter's words, "the most comprehensive indoor urban golf practice and teaching facility in the world"--an $18 million, Disneyesque attraction with a 110-yard fairway, 60 tees, putting greens, computerized golf simulators, a restaurant, PGA instructors, a pro shop, a gym, even high-tech business "war rooms."

For about a year and a half, Porter and his partners have steadfastly sought to find a home for the extravagant venture, dubbed the St. Andrew's Golf Academy, or SAGA, in downtown Minneapolis. Yet despite letters of endorsement from an array of public and private institutions including the Minneapolis City Council, the quest has proved as confounding as a devilish par three--and much more expensive. So far, according to Porter, SAGA's tab is approaching $500,000. "That, perversely, is what keeps you going," he says.

The most recent proposal called for the facility to be erected smack on the top of a soon-to-be-built eight-story combination bus station and parking ramp, the Hawthorne Transportation Center. Earlier this month the City Council effectively killed that plan, which would have included city support in the form of a $4.5 million tax increment financing package. Officials feared that accomodating SAGA would delay construction and drive up costs, including some $450,000 in design fees alone. It was the second defeat for SAGA, which last summer lost out on a deal to buy the former National Guard Armory from Hennepin County.

But Porter--a 42-year-old former Peace Corps volunteer, stockbroker, and Best Buy executive--remains optimistic about a project he describes in lofty, almost spiritual terms. SAGA, named after the Scottish golf mecca at St. Andrews, will be guided "by a holistic approach to the game of golf. This approach will devote space and time to the physical, mental, and emotional aspects of the sport. This will result not only in better scoring on the golf course but in greater balance in life."

Porter and his chief partner, longtime investment banker and Deephaven native Timothy Thompson (who refers to SAGA as a year-round "oasis of summer"), aren't above calculating their project's potential in material terms as well. Both note that with about 29 percent of the adult population playing at least one round a year, the Twin Cities metro area has the nation's highest number of golfers per capita. An even greater percentage can be found among the 140,000 downtown workers, they say, making for an ideal, and largely untapped, market. "Why should I have to drive out to the suburbs to do something like that?" asks Porter. "Why can't I do that indoors, on my lunch hour, in downtown Minneapolis?"

Unlike the famed "Old Course" at St. Andrews in Scotland (where greens fees can run as high as $2,000 per round), Porter says SAGA will be affordable to both professionals and blue-collar golfers. Customers will pay eight to ten dollars for half an hour of swatting balls down a fairway complete with shrubs and water hazards. Or, Porter says, golfers can practice their short game on one of the "master's level" miniature putting courses, which will have the finest in synthetic grasses; fine-tune their swing with the latest computer and video equipment; play a virtual round at Pebble Beach or Augusta on one of 15 "golf simulators." SAGA, Porter concludes, can become "a functional village green," bringing together golf-playing executives, Warehouse District bar crawlers, and--here's the deal-sweetener--inner-city kids.

The latter, according to the plan, will be wooed to the Academy through the St. Andrew's Foundation, a nonprofit arm of the venture designed to offer tutoring in both golf and academics. The foundation, Porter says, will provide access to computers and other high-tech office equipment, which will also be rented to adults for professional conferences. "Kids will be exposed to insurance agents and stockbrokers in a way they wouldn't be otherwise," he says. "From a real cold-logic point of view, we're trying to expand our market." SAGA has two well-connected minority partners, Benjamin S. Jaffray, a former senior vice president at Cargill, and David N. Mooty, president of the Continental Golf Corporation and a onetime partner in the Minneapolis law firm of Gray, Plant, Moody, Mooty and Bennett.

Porter and his partners say they are disappointed by the collapse of the two proposed deals. "What we have found from both experiences is that, in the political arena, you can't predict how people will vote," says Porter. But city officials--whose enthusiasm for downtown entertainment projects continues to grow--say they still hope to lure the burgeoning golf crowd, and its wallets, downtown. "We're going to keep working with them. We like the concept a lot," says City Council president Jackie Cherryhomes. The city will help SAGA look for another site, she adds, and has instructed city finance director John Muir to find some $15,000 in city funding for a feasibility study of the venture. Cherryhomes's colleague, 11th Ward representative Doré Mead, says officials "want to show that we're seriously interested."

Porter and Thompson insist that one way or another, SAGA will be built. They say they have been talking to the city officials in Cleveland and Denver. They'd like to be in Minneapolis's entertainment district--Block E sounds alluring. But, says Porter, "pretty soon we'll have to make the decision to fish or cut bait. Then you can throw us in the category of all the prophets who are without honor in their hometown."

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