Sunset Hills looking at its options for 122-acre golf course donation

Pictured above: An aerial view of the Sunset Hills Golf Course, with the location of the proposed rugby park in green. Rendering courtesy of the St. Louis Bombers Rugby Club.

By Erin Achenbach
Staff Reporter
eachenbach@callnewspapers.com

Sunset Hills has a new city-owned golf course that could serve as a park and as a bonus, might even get a new sports team to root for if a rugby club builds its playing fields on the property.

The 122 acres of land that made up Sunset Hills Golf Course, 1336 W. Watson Road, were donated to the city in September by owner Steve Bander, a physician from Des Peres. The last day the golf course was open was Nov. 15, and the city closed on the property Nov. 29.

The golf course originally opened in 1989 as Sunset Lakes Golf Course, but Bander bought and rehabbed it when it went into foreclosure in 2011.

Bander received a federal whistleblower windfall of $58 million in 2001 when he exposed Medicare fraud at his former employer, a kidney dialysis company that had overcharged public health care programs by hundreds of millions of dollars. Bander had served as the chief medical officer of the company.

The city is looking into hiring an outside engineering firm to serve as a consultant and help decide what to do with the former golf course, which is partially located in a flood plain but could be used as a park, Mayor Pat Fribis said.

The consultant will “help gather input from the public and (evaluate) what will be most beneficial for the city of Sunset Hills and its residents,” the Parks Department stated in a news release. “The city is excited about this donation and is looking forward to the new endeavor.”

Any use of the land is strictly prohibited until the spring, when the city will decide what to do with the property, according to the release.

With the property now under city control, the Bombers Rugby Club submitted a proposal to the Sunset Hills Board of Aldermen to build a new rugby facility at the now-former Sunset Hills Golf Course.

The city plans to hold a public hearing on whether to allow the Bombers to build their facility, since it would be a private use on public land. There is not yet a timeline on when that hearing will happen, City Administrator Eric Sterman said.

At the Oct. 23 Board of Aldermen meeting, the board heard from Ron Laszewski, head coach of men’s rugby at Lindenwood University and a founding member of the St. Louis Bombers rugby team.

“Our plan is develop a premier rugby facility with the Bombers covering all upfront costs, and we will maintain the facility,” said Laszewski. “It will serve the community and it will improve the community.”

Laszewski drew comparisons to Fenton’s soccer park, saying that a rugby facility like the one the Bombers are proposing could help put Sunset Hills on the map.

“This facility will be a gem for Sunset Hills,” Laszewski said. “It will expose the public to one of the world’s most popular and fastest growing sports, serving hundreds of local athletes of all ages and genders.”

The Bombers are proposing a 12-acre facility composed of three to four rugby fields — known as pitches — as well as bleachers, pavilions, restrooms and concession stands. The development and construction of the complex would be bankrolled by the Bombers and would be used not only by the team but other youth rugby leagues, school teams and university teams.

The board appeared intrigued by Laszeswki’s proposal, although some aldermen expressed concern about building a private club on public land.

“So this is going to be private for the club? But on public land?” asked Ward 3 Alderman Kurt Krueger.

“This is for all the (rugby) programs in town. They’ll come play us on those fields… We just have to have a say on who will play on it,” said Laszewski.

Ward 2 Alderman Casey Wong floated the idea of opening the rugby pitches up for use by other sports teams.

“Has there been any thought about potentially sharing the facility with other sports, maybe even soccer or football?” asked Wong.

“If someone else has a plan and wants to present it to you, there’s plenty of room out there,” said Laszewski. “Look at lacrosse fields and soccer fields. There’s big holes and bare spots on those fields. Rugby is played all over. This is hundreds of thousands of dollars of our money, and we want to keep our fields pristine.”

Wong, along with Ward 4 Alderman Mark Colombo, suggested that before the city pursues any negotiations with the Bombers that there be pubic input on the proposal, since part of the newly public land would be made private with the Bombers’ arrangement.

“I’m very intrigued, but because it would be public land I think we need a little more public input,” said Wong.

“I’m with Alderman Wong on that. Hopefully the newspapers get it out there and we get some public comment back and sleep on it, and then see what the master plan looks like,” said Colombo. “It’s a wonderful idea that you have here, and I’m very intrigued by it. But we want to make sure because it’s public land…we represent the city and we want to listen to our constituents.”

Director of Parks and Recreation Gerald Brown presented further ideas on how the city should use the 122 acres, including a $50,000 proposition to leave the acreage in a natural state and enhance it with native flora, as well as equestrian trails, bike trails and operating the west side of the tract as a public nine-hole golf course.

Bander is also planning on selling 15 acres of the property to Andre’s Banquet Center and Catering, which would include the golf course’s clubhouse and parking lot.