Mulligans Saved? How It Got That Way
By James Luke
Where the Jordan River runs under 10600 South in South Jordan, various shades of greens and browns stretch north along the river valley. The driving ranges, fairways, roughs and greens of Mulligans Golf & Games are the emerald green and well-manicured neighbor to tall trees and shrubs abutting the Jordan River Parkway Trail. Across the river, yellowing dry grasses and shrubs grow thick on the east bank toward the high-rise buildings on the hill.
South Jordan, a former farming community in the southwest Salt Lake valley, saw its population grow steadily in the late 20th century. The city’s population doubled from the 1960s to the 70s, doubled again in the 80s and nearly doubled into the 1990s, when South Jordan was ranked the second fastest growing city in the state of Utah for two years.
Even in the early 1990s, though, land in South Jordan still tended to be more open than developed. The city limits stretch from 300 West near Interstate 15, west almost to the base of the Qquirrh Mountains at 7200 West, and span north to south from 9400 South to 11800 South in an irregular rectangle.
In early 1994, the city council rezoned the land near where Mulligans now sits from Open Space-Recreational to Low-Density Residential. The change was designed to get the South Valley Sewer District to back off from its plans for a new wastewater treatment plant on the site. The new treatment plant eventually arrived downriver, near 7600 South in West Jordan.
In the early 1990s an entrepreneur named Jimmy Blair and a partner acquired a patch of land north of 10600 South, along the west side of the Jordan River. Mulligans was born.
Mulligans Golf & Games, 692 West 10600 South, features a diverse array of recreational amenities. Two 9-hole golf courses offer challenges for all levels of golfers. Practice greens and sand traps give golfers a place to work on their short game near the driving ranges. Batting cages provide a range of pitching speeds for work on another type of swing. Two mini-golf courses add entertainment for families.
In 2004, South Jordan City bought Mulligans, complete with inventory, for $10.8 million. The bond issued to secure the purchase totaled $12.5 million.
Around the same time as the Mulligans purchase, South Jordan City sold a 39.5-acre parcel directly north of Mulligans to developers Kem Gardner and John Gust. City council minutes of the June 22, 2004 meeting report that, “Mayor [Kent] Money said the sale of the 40 acres was important to have the means to purchase the Mulligans golf course. He said they are preserving open space.”
The sale brought some $3.3 million to city coffers, but Mulligans was not paid off. The bond went on requiring annual payments in the range of $450,000 from the city for 10 more years.
Along with new city council members Chuck Newton and Donald Shelton, Mayor David Alvord took office in January 2014. On his candidacy website, Alvord predicts that with a win in the November 2013 election, “I can arrive at City Hall, be sworn in, and immediately inform the members of the city council that I was elected on a mandate to lower taxes.”
Under the heading “Mulligans and other public lands” he explains that, “South Jordan City currently owns a golf course. By some estimates that land is worth 18 million dollars. We should explore the sale of that land to private development.”
After he was sworn in, though, the plans under consideration in city hall for the Mulligans location were not discussed openly in early 2014. City officials said little in public about the $300,000 study the city commissioned to evaluate commercial development potential of the Mulligans property.
Neighbors of the golf course began to suspect some city action in spring of 2014. At the city council meeting April 15, residents asked direct questions about plans. City officials denied current plans to develop the Mulligans property. The next day, a resident of the area, Steven Kaufman, took photographs of crews drilling soil samples around Mulligans.
Mayor Alvord soon openly acknowledged what had been private discussions with Hale Center Theatre to consider building their new location on the Mulligans site. The deal fell through, but the city’s interest in sale and development did not go away.
Ideas floated around city hall for potential retail, offices, restaurants and perhaps some residential in the large green spot on the city’s map. There was talk of making it part of a Transit Oriented Development plan, with the UTA Frontrunner stop just up the hill from the area, to bring in people.
South Jordan residents heard about the pricey development analysis report, and they organized and rose up to resist. Save Mulligans arose with urgency in March 2014, at the time that the city’s willingness to consider filling the green space with development became public.
On the top deck of the two-tier driving range at Mulligans, a line of practice tees arcs along the leading edge of the concrete platform with the supreme view. Below, white dots of range balls litter the large lawn, and beyond, fairways link greens and tees. The green view stops at a row of houses on the north border of Mulligans.
The property the city sold in 2005 with the intent of gathering “the means to purchase the Mulligans golf course” filled in with housing. What had been the open space north of Mulligans along the Jordan River Parkway Trail is a neighborhood.
Looking south from the top deck, a tiny village below with its haunted house, black pyramid, red rock formations and lighthouse edges up against a busy six-lane road. Traffic ebbs and flows east and west across the valley along 10600 South just beyond the mini-golf course.
Stacked blocks of office buildings stretch into the distance along the river to the south. The low slung profile of restaurants, banks and retail shops edges the north side of the River Front development.
The Green People
Janalee Tobias holds a group of pictures that recall the view from 10600 South, looking south along the Jordan River in the 1990s. Open grasslands stretched across the river wetlands where office parks and restaurants now cluster. The battle over the development that arose across the street from Mulligans was a defining event in her life, culminating in lawsuits against her and a book telling the story.
The group of residents who formed Save Mulligans approached Tobias, also a South Jordan resident who lives further away from the Mulligans property, for an alliance with her organizing skills. The group built momentum and organized appearances en masse at council meetings wearing green T-shirts emblazoned with “Save Mulligans”. The mayor called Save Mulligans supporters “the green people.”
The group made the city’s annual Country Fair celebration in June its focal point of increasing organizational efforts. Entries in the South Jordan parade and banners on cars touted the two-word battle cry of the organization’s name. Tobias and others maintained a booth, providing information and getting residents’ opinions on the fate of the Mulligans property.
Soon after, bolstered by funds raised, awareness increased, and many more people involved, Save Mulligans published a question in the local South Jordan City Journal newspaper asking if residents supported keeping Mulligans free from development. The results were strongly in favor of saving Mulligans.
The city then funded a survey campaign of its own. Originally slated to cost some $90,000 for a more extensive campaign of informing and polling the public on the issues, the council voted 3-2 in favor of going ahead with a $20,400 version of a public poll by political analyst LaVarr Webb and Y2 Analytics.
“Fair, Honest, and Unbiased”
Tobias pulled out a letter from Mayor Alvord that went out to residents of the city on South Jordan letterhead, at city expense, in advance of the Y2 Analytics survey.
“This is not honest public debate, when he is trying to influence opinion,” she said, pointing to quotes from the letter to illustrate her point: “Today, the land is worth $60 million, depending on how the land is zoned. The property could bring in $50 million in taxes in the next 30 years . . . your property taxes will be affected by the decisions made for Mulligans’ future.”
In a letter that was ostensibly to introduce the topic on which the government wanted to hear the opinions of the public, on official city letterhead with the names of all city council members listed, Alvord said, “My personal feeling is that government should not engage in business enterprises that compete with the private sector.”
His vision for filling the space with development comes through clear in the letter, as it had earlier on his candidacy website: “The decision for Mulligans does not have to be all-or-nothing. We could create a new park that is open to all on half of the land, and bring restaurants to the other half.”
He concludes the letter with pleasant sounding phrases of official openness that stand in contrast to the tone and statements in the letter in favor of development of the green space. “As your Mayor, I give my personal assurance this survey will be fair, honest, and unbiased.”
Regardless of Alvord’s personal opinions, introduced in his letter sent to residents ahead of the survey, though, the tone of the debate soon changed. The survey results showed strong majority support for keeping all of Mulligans open and green, as had the earlier question in the newspaper sponsored by Save Mulligans.
In December 2014, city officials came to the realization that the city could pay the Mulligans bond in full, saving the annual payments of $450,000, which had made it difficult for the recreation center to have positive cash flow for improvements and upkeep. Terms of the bond repayment allowed full payment of the remaining amount due in April 2015 without penalty, saving over a million dollars in interest payments that would have been made over the life of the bond.
The city had sufficient funds in its surplus account. South Jordan put together a one-time payment of $4.6 million to retire the debt on Mulligans in April 2015.
The city council created the Mulligans Commission to review plans to make the recreation center more successful and attractive to the public. In August, the Mulligans Commission hosted a public meeting about the future of Mulligans.
In a statement about the recent gathering, Mark Seethaler, chairman of the Mulligans Commission and a councilmember who is not running for reelection this November, explains, “The questions remaining have to do with how this beautiful amenity within our city is best protected and enjoyed.”