Elise Stolte: Best kept ski secret. ‘Public benefit’ not so public at Mayfair Golf Course 

Sun on the snow, gently rolling hills, a sheltered path through forest glades. The Royal Mayfair Golf Club is absolutely the prettiest spot I’d ever skied in Edmonton.

“There’s no other place that comes close to this,” agreed ski racer Greg Nicholson, after he and newbie skier Marion Wolff joined the expedition.

We were exploring because none of us realized the city-owned grounds of this exclusive, private club minutes from downtown were open to the public for skiing in the winter. The sign on the gate says “Members Only.” Even city staff didn’t know it was available until I shared the news on Twitter, and it’s not listed for skiing on maps.

Being open for skiing is the public benefit mandated in Mayfair’s $200,000-a-year lease agreement.

But is it really a public benefit if no one knows?

General manager Wade Hudyma says the club is in talks with the city to reopen the lease, hoping to get an extension before presenting shareholders with a renovation plan for the clubhouse next summer.

Sounds like the perfect time to rethink this.

In the meantime, staff plan to set tracks Friday; conditions should be perfect this weekend. The trail starts at the north edge of the parking lot. Skiers don’t get access to washrooms or restaurant at the club.

This golf course has been here since 1922. The land was originally planned for housing, but it’s in the flood plain. It’s roughly five hectares, larger than the adjacent Hawrelak Park.

The course itself is top quality — it hosts national and other high-profile tournaments and was given royal designation in 2005. The clubhouse is the social club of the well-heeled. “A place where business leaders meet,” said Hudyma.

It’s where Mayor Don Iveson hosts his quarterly business roundtable.

I was first tipped off about the lease being up for extension from an angry Twitter follower, upset just at the idea of “ceding a huge chunk of our river valley to a few hundred wealthy people for their private use.”

There are only 475 full shareholders — a honour that comes with a $39,500 entry fee and roughly $10,000 in annual dues.

It’s not the only private club on public land that’s been controversial.

When council approved the deal to lease land to the nearby Royal Glenora Club in the 1958, it squeaked through by one vote, said historian Shirley Lowe. The city bought the land from the Hudson’s Bay Company for public recreation and some Edmonton residents saw a private club as a betrayal.

The Glenora lease doesn’t stipulate any public benefit, said general manager Dustin McAvoy. But they give subsidized access to up to 25 lower-income children who show promise in racket sports. They also host 250 children under 12 each year to compete in eight sports for $1,000 bursaries.

McAvoy wouldn’t say how much the club pays for the lease. Neither would the general manager of Highlands Golf Course, which also give winter access to the general public. City officials also refused, arguing it’s private information.

Kudos to Mayfair for being transparent. Its lease currently runs to 2051 and Hudyma would like to extend it to 2069, which is the 50-year maximum he expects council to stick to.

It’s hard to say exactly what that land is actually worth — $200,000 annually sounds low. It’s $35,000 for the actual lease and the rest is property taxes.

City bylaws prevent any more residential development in the North Saskatchewan River Valley, but the land could be returned and used for public recreation, a natural sanctuary and enhanced wildlife corridor or market gardens.

But I’m not arguing for that.

There’s a benefit to having a top-quality golf course in the city to attract high-profile golf events. It’s great taxpayers aren’t on the hook to maintain that and the club does have sponsored programs for young golfers who can’t afford access.

But this needs to be a public debate — including the lease rates.

I want Mayfair to stand publicly and defend this use of public land. Tell Edmontonians why this lease should be extended and let’s hear from residents what public benefit should be considered.

At minimum, put up a sign that says “Public cross-country skiing” in the winter. But they could also propose environmental commitments on the use of herbicides and natural landscaping (it already has green Audubon Certification). They could have mentorship opportunities to match bright, less-privileged city residents with the club’s business leaders.

That would be even better than letting me use the washroom.

estolte@postmedia.com

twitter.com/estolte

Elise Stolte is an opinion columnist with the Edmonton Journal.

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