A Minnesota town bought an 18-hole course for $3.4M and is selling the remaining 9 holes for $426K
SARTELL, Minnesota — Since tabling the proposal to sell the 9-hole, 81-acre Pine Ridge Golf Course, the city of Sartell is taking another look at its appraisal numbers and has put out a fact sheet before the expected vote May 22.
The City Council was prepared to approve the sale to Three Tees LLC for $426,000 during its May 8 meeting, but after questions were raised about the value of the property and the amount of information available to the public, the board voted to table the sale until its next meeting.
The city of Sartell is about 75 miles northwest of downtown Minneapolis.
“This is massive — quite literally might be the largest decision I’ve been asked to make in seven years of sitting on the City Council,” Mayor Ryan Fitzthum said at the May 8 meeting.
Three Tees is owned by restauranteur Brandon Testa, who is the owner of House of Pizza and son of its founder, Bob Testa. House of Pizza first opened in 1964 in downtown St. Cloud and currently has two locations in Sartell and west St. Cloud.
Brandon Testa plans to build a new restaurant at the course, though he declined to give many details about its concept. He has no experience in operating a golf course, but said buying it seemed like an opportunity, “not to replace, but add to Sartell’s current restaurant portfolio.” He said the unnamed restaurant would be unique to the area and appealing to people who golf or don’t. He said he would continue to operate House of Pizza separately in Sartell.
Testa, a prominent business owner in the town, is acquaintances with several members of the council. Councilmember Jill Smith said her motivations for supporting the sale stem from her desire to keep Pine Cone Ridge an amenity for the city.
“I do not want this burden to fall on taxpayers and see an opportunity for a private buyer to make a real impact from an economic development standpoint,” she said.
Sartell would place a deed on the property, heavily regulating the buyer for 30 years — which is the maximum allowed by state law. The deed significantly devalues the land, requiring that the 9-hole course is maintained to U.S. Golf Association standards and requires that the buyer add improvements to the clubhouse, parking lot and irrigation system by 2025.
That’s why Sartell began exploring the sale last year, according to the city’s engagement director, Nikki Sweeter. Though equipment at the course is functional and doesn’t require immediate work, the parking lot could be replaced and the 40-year-old sprinkler system could be upgraded to one that is automatic and less labor intensive. The clubhouse is also aging.
Sweeter said Sartell expects to have to spend money on different projects at the course “in the next three to five years” and city Finance Director Rob Voshell voiced the potential for needing a greater tax levy in the future. The city deducted several hundred thousand dollars from the appraisal price to compensate for the ballparked price of the expenditures. The golf course was appraised in the summer of 2022 for $775,000.
In the May 8 meeting, City Councilmember Alex Lewandowski said the sale had his support.
“What it comes down to for me personally is that this golf course right now — and it’s going to continue to go up in the coming years — is a liability to the city and we have the opportunity for a party to take control who is going to fix the problems and make it better along one of the main drags in our city,” Lewandowski said.
Sartell bought the then-18-hole course in 2008 for $3.425 million using funds from bond proceeds, the city’s cash reserve, and the regional half-cent sales tax that was originally passed by voters in 2003 to be used on roads, parks and trails and community buildings with regional significance. Pine Ridge Golf Course was split up since then, the city transforming the back nine holes into Pinecone Central Park and Central Park Boulevard. Sartell would keep those if a sale were to be approved.
Since the purchase, the city has leased the operations of Pine Ridge to Boulder Ridge, which also manages the 9-hole Boulder Ridge Golf Course in St. Cloud. The proceeds from the lease have been dedicated to helping the Sartell Youth Hockey Association pay off the Scheels Athletic Complex since 2020 and prior to that were transferred to Pinecone Central Park Association. The cost of that agreement was estimated to be about $482,384 at the time, according to SC Times archives.
Pine Ridge has been profitable for several years and manager Pat Schreifels expects it to be again this summer, he said. He said membership is on par with previous years, despite the late spring.
Boulder Ridge holds the lease for another 10 years, and Sartell would have to buy its operator out, costing $60,000. Boulder Ridge would then cease operations in November and the sale would close in January 2024. Testa said he has had some preliminary conversations with Boulder Ridge about continuing operations under his ownership, but didn’t rule out other options.
City Administrator Anna Gruber said city staff brought the idea to sell Pine Ridge to the city in August 2022 in an effort to limit debt and build and develop a plan for capital improvement funds.
“It just kind of an option that staff thought that the council might be interested in, to just sell now and let the next phase of this golf course come to light sooner,” Sweeter said.
In City Council meetings last September 19 the council heard a presentation from Testa on a concept and vision for the course and instructed city staff to design a public sale process. On October 10 the council approved the process, requesting qualifications within a month. The council reviewed four letters of intent and three proposals, including one from Boulder Ridge, and selected the highest bid from Three Tees LLC on January 9. Since then, city staff have been finalizing a purchase agreement.
In the May 8 meeting, City Councilmember Jed Meyer argued that the property could be worth a much higher appraised value if developed as residential or commercial, saying that the city shouldn’t devalue its land while trying to sell it. Meyer, who has previously been president of the Sartell Baseball Association and vice president of the Pinecone Park Association and said his opposition to the sale has nothing to do with Testa or his restaurant proposal, “just not at this price.”
“What is the sense of urgency?” he asked, suggesting the city explore other options such as selling just enough land for a restaurant and continuing operations of the course.
“We are a city that should be running city business,” Councilmember Tim Elness said. “To be operating a golf course and to be wasting the resources we need to be using for other public amenities and our public works, it seems like a real struggle to keep that moving forward in a positive light. If we were to have some sort of major mechanical issue at the course, where would we get the funding for that right now?”
Smith expressed her displeasure with the lack of planning for the cost of maintenance and operations and said she felt the sale value is “appropriate.”
There has been some outcry from members of the community, including from former city leaders like mayors Sarah Jane Nicoll (2015-2018) and Joe Perske (2011-2014) who penned a letter to the city opposing the sale, along with former council members Steve Hennes and Pat Lynch. Lynch, who was on the board for one term from 2015-2018, is an administrator of a Facebook group with currently has over 300 members called “Sartell—Stop the Fire Sale.”
There has also been frustration about the sale process, specifically that decisions have been made in workshops rather than in meetings. Workshops are open to the public, but their agendas are less detailed than regular meetings and during regular meetings, members of the public aren’t allowed to speak on agenda items.
City officials have pushed back, saying people have had seven workshops or meetings since December when the sale wasn’t on the agenda and anyone could have spoken on any topic. The city has followed the regular process over several months and has issued multiple press releases.
Lewandowski and Smith voted to approve of the sale, with the three other voters dissenting. Elness said he was prepared to vote in favor, but after accusations that the process hasn’t been transparent, agreed to table to sale while city staff re-evaluate the value of the business and other aspects of the sale. It is expected to be voted on again in the May 22 meeting.
“No matter how this goes, we’ve got a lot of pride and passion in our community,” Meyer said. “Once the decision is made, my intention is to support whatever that decision is 100%. I think that’s important though this process, that we come back together as a community and support whatever that decions is and make it the best option that it can be.”