In Challenge Lies Opportunity—Can the Yahara Hills Golf Course Be Converted into a Bike Park?

By Kristie Schilling, Executive Director, Monona East Side Business Alliance

On October 20, the Wisconsin State Journal published Logan Wroge’s article on the debate to close Yahara Hills Golf Course or the Monona Golf Course. The article states that in early November the golf subcommittee would make a recommendation on which course to close. It is encouraging that the article quotes Charlie Romines, assistant parks superintendent, as stating that Yahara Hills is being “strongly considered” for closure. Previously, the only course being seriously considered for closure was Monona Golf Course. The strongest argument for the closure of Monona is that the 400-acre parcel of land at Yahara Hills is that the land cannot be used for any other use. I’m a firm believer that every piece of land in Madison is developable so long as the right idea is presented. So, let’s explore one option for that parcel—an integrated bike park.

Mountain biking is the fastest growing sport in the country. It’s followed close behind by cyclocross. Madison currently has one small cyclocross practice facility on the north side. For mountain biking within the city limits, there is Quarry Park, a near west side park that is quite small and often overcrowded. Fitchburg has Quarry Ridge and Middleton has Pleasant View. But, there are very few assets available within Madison—the fittest city in America as dubbed by Fitbit.

What is a bike park? Flow Form Bike Ramps provides a good definition on their website: “A bike park is a piece of land specifically designed for off-road or mountain biking. Bike parks can be built in small urban areas, public lands or integrated with trail systems.” Bike parks may include skills courses, pump tracks, flow tracks, cyclocross courses, jumps, trails and features. They can even include a velodrome.

Whistler’s Gravity Logic has started converting golf courses for cities around the world since younger people are opting for bicycles over golf clubs.

I recently spoke with Chad Landowski from Landowski Trailworx LLC in Madison who designs bike parks all over the country. He said he’s spoken to numerous Madison bikers who would love to see a bike park available. “Madison has so few parks that allow biking,” Chad stated. He said that’s unlikely to change due to erosion and safety issues for parks that are primarily designed for hiking not biking. Public safety and erosion is a clear concern and more reason why we should consider other possibilities for a bike park.

Environmental Concerns

There are multiple concerns about closing the Monona Golf Course in regard to how our local environment could be affected. The primary concern in my opinion is how the development would affect the quality of the lakes. In 2017, we saw several records set with our lakes like the earliest algae bloom ever taking place in June. Our lakes are at a tipping point and as one of the largest factors that contributes to Madisonians’ quality of life, we need to take every action to protect our lakes. Developing the Monona Golf Course into housing would create a large amount of concrete and asphalt that would promote runoff into our lakes. Plus, when we lose green space or park land within our urban boundaries, it will be lost forever.

Accessibility Concerns

Monona Golf Course is central and easily accessible to both Monona Grove High School and La Follette High School. The course provides great accessibility to students for golf, cross country, and skiing and snowshoeing in the winter.

I’ve heard the argument that Yahara Hills does not have good connections to the rest of Madison. But, with the recent opening of the Lower Yahara River Trail that has improved somewhat. The last connection that needs to be completed is the Capital City Trail that currently dead-ends at Cottage Grove Road. It’s known as Segment 4-6 and the last public input meeting on the topic was held on December 10, 2015. According to the City of Madison’s website, “This project is a key segment of a paved multi-use (bicycle / pedestrian) path that is planned to extend the Capital City Trail from Buckeye Road to east of Interstate 39/90 on the southeast side of Madison, generally following the corridor of the Union Pacific rail line. This is part of the remaining 6-mile “missing link” between the Capital City Path and the Glacial Drumlin State Trail in the village of Cottage Grove. When complete it will become part of a continuous 140-mile path across the State.” The city is know taking a look at the reconstruction of Stoughton Road and the “missing link” would be timed perfectly in conjunction with that road construction project.

The Opportunity

We know that Wisconsin welcomes $20 billion (yes, billion) each year from visitors according to the Economic Impact Research conducted by the Department of Tourism. That number increased from 2015’s $700 million impact. We’re home to an incredibly powerful tourism organization, the Greater Madison Convention & Visitors Bureau, which partners with the Madison Sports Commission. These organizations were critical in securing the Cross Fit Games which made its debut in Madison in 2017 contributing $7.2 million impact on the Madison area as reported in the Cap Times by Erik Lorenzsonn.

The Mountain Bike Tourism Association (MBTA) conducted a study on the Whistler Mountain Bike Park for the summer of 2006 (Sea to Sky Mountain Biking Economic Impact Study). Whistler is home to one of the best skiing areas in North America but it has transitioned its tourism economy to include mountain biking with the Whistler Bike Park. Gravity Logic has the study posted on its website but here are some excerpts for consideration. From June 4 to September 17, 2006, bikers spent $39.1 million in new economic activity. The Crankworx Festival is now an annual event that draws visitors from all over the world to further build upon the economic impact of mountain biking. The study concluded that just over half of the summer visitors to Whistler indicated that cycling was an important trip motivator in their decision making to visit Whistler. Cities with bike parks are seeing visitors from all over the world because of the popularity of the sport and trails being viewed as destination trails. 

Dave Cieslewicz recently wrote an article for the Wisconsin Bike Fed titled, “Why Not Cyclo-Cross at Yahara Hills?” He illustrates the opportunity that awaits the Madison community and the benefits biking can continue to bring if we build upon our assets. He points out that “Trek Bicycle just held the International Cyclo-cross World Cup in Waterloo last month. The event attracted 2,000 riders and thousands more visitors and press from around the world. And, of course, there’s the potential for income charging folks to ride the trails and charging organizers to put on races. The proximity to major freeways and an existing parking lot could make it a cyclo-cross center attracting visitors and racers from not just Madison, but Milwaukee, Chicago and points beyond.

Madison may decide the future of Yahara Hills as early as this fall. Cyclo-cross should be among the options explored.”

Considering that the Madison area is home to numerous organizations who’s mission is to promote biking like Trek, Saris, Pacific Cycle, Planet Bike, and Landowski Trailworx, I think we can start to see the vision of what could be. Let’s not make a mistake of creating more housing in an area that is highly valuable as a community green space when we could invest in our community with a long-term vision that includes building upon our reputation as a great biking community. If you’d like to discuss this opportunity or others in the Monona East Side community, I encourage you to contact me, at (608) 222-8565 or send an email.

– Kristie Schilling, Executive Director, Monona East Side Business Alliance