Iron Eagle Flooding

This photo shows the Iron Eagle Golf Course after rising river levels flooded it in 2015.

All of North Platte’s most frequent arguments about Iron Eagle Golf Course surfaced during Tuesday night’s marathon City Council meeting.

We expect they’ll resurface at tonight’s preplanned special council meeting to adopt the city’s next budget, whether or not the city keeps the course going or retires its chronic in-house debt.

The issues raised Tuesday night are familiar to all who have followed our public golf debate for 30 years:

» Competing with private golf courses.

» Providing public recreational opportunities — and which ones — without expectation of breaking even.

» Finding funds to maintain North Platte’s infrastructure, including streets, parks, the Recreation Center and other recreation for nongolfers.

» Attracting economic development through an attractive Interstate 80 front door.

All are important.

Yet lately, public debate at council meetings seems to bypass one massive issue:

The river.

Yes, the South Platte River, that usually humble stream with a notorious history of infrequent but massive flooding.

Since Iron Eagle opened in 1994, the river has weighed in mightily on this dispute four times — in 1995, 1997, 2013 and 2015.

Its opinion: This is a bad place for a public golf course.

It shouldn’t have been a surprise. Early North Platte newspapers noted major “South River” floods in 1876, 1917 and 1935. A 1921 deluge washed away an earlier version of the city’s main South Platte bridge.

Then the river went silent for decades. And it lulled our city to sleep.

The other popular arguments over municipal golf in North Platte would be relevant at any location in town. It was so in May 1990, when voters rejected buying nine-hole Indian Meadows and building nine more holes on nearby city-owned land.

Voters changed their minds in May 1992, largely because the riverfront site was made available. But the river’s history, like that of a dormant volcano, went unremarked.

It had barely held water for many years. It didn’t seem to be a problem.

Then, just a year after Iron Eagle opened, the river began telling us otherwise. It put two-thirds of the course underwater, requiring expensive repairs.

The river has repeated its message three times since — including six years ago this month, after Colorado’s Front Range was deluged by massive thunderstorms that sent all their water down the South Platte.

Golf for the general public, no matter who offers it, is a tough business these days.

But there’s one overriding reason why taxpayers have had to pour millions of dollars into Iron Eagle and why the course has never built the momentum its backers counted on.

It’s the river.

Any decision on Iron Eagle’s future — any decision — must recognize that the South Platte could punish the course after any harsh Rockies winter or any time the skies let loose over Denver, Loveland and Fort Collins.

If North Platte taxpayers are willing to restore the course every time it floods, so be it. But 25 years of arguments and the testimony at Tuesday night’s budget hearing say otherwise.

There is a less expensive yet aesthetic alternative, as we have said before:

Convert all of Iron Eagle, or even just the most flood-prone part, to public “green space” with hiking-biking trails and simpler amenities that can be picked up before or cheaply restored after floods.

There’s no question Iron Eagle played a role in Chief Development’s decision to offer North Platte up to $40 million in new investments, including a major “senior living” complex next to the course.

But Chief’s projects do not — repeat, do not — depend on Iron Eagle, as firm President Roger Bullington says elsewhere in today’s Telegraph.

He says the initial industrial and commercial aspects of Chief’s proposal don’t at all depend on the golf course.

And if the city decides to shrink or give up on Iron Eagle, he adds, green space next to the envisioned housing complex would be a viable “1B” alternative.

North Platte is fortunate indeed that such a high-quality, well-regarded economic development player as Chief has chosen to build here. The council’s approval of a $1 million Quality Growth Fund forgivable loan — even on a split 5-3 vote — was a critical vote of confidence.

Even so, Tuesday’s council meeting demonstrated how thoroughly Iron Eagle casts its dark wings over virtually every effort to move our community forward.

This must end. And ending it starts with heeding the inescapable character in this drama: the river.

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