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Oak Hills restauranteurs seek to sell business

The new view of the Oak Hills Park restaurant from the golf course’s first tee, which was recently renovated.

NORWALK, Conn. — Amar Haouri and Vincent LaForte will be out of the Oak Hills Park restaurant business by Jan. 15, by the latest.

However, their Oak Hills Restaurant on the Green is not behind on its rent, as some have suggested.

The topic came up at Thursday’s Common Council Finance Committee meeting, where Council member Doug Hempstead (R-At Large) asked Norwalk Comptroller Frederic Gilden, “Do you know if there is a situation going on with the tenant at the restaurant not paying their rent?”

“There is a situation going on,” Gilden replied.

“So, he has not his paid rent in a couple of months,” Hempstead said.

“That’s correct,” Gilden said.

“That’s not true,” Haouri said Saturday. “The rent is up to date. I don’t know who said that, but the rent is paid…. It’s a lie.”

“As far as I know they have paid their rent right up to when I left (to go out of town for the weekend) two days ago,” Oak Hills Park Authority Chairman Jerry Crowley said Saturday. “It’s due on the 15th, if they haven’t I usually get some kind of feedback.”

However, the lease for the restaurant expired on Jan. 15, he said.

“They have been trying to sell their business for a year, it’s been on the open market,” he said.

The Oak Hills Park Authority has been holding executive sessions about the restaurant every month for some time now. Crowley said that’s because if Haouri and LaForte sold their business the buyer would have to be approved as a tenant for the restaurant.

The pair “for the last year has been attempting to sell the balance of its lease which ends 1/15/2018 along with fixtures and good will.  As its business broker presented candidates, the Authority has been vetting them,” Crowley said.

Haouri and LaForte declined to comment.

Hempstead said Haouri called him after the NancyOnNorwalk inquiry.

“I apologized to him,” Hempstead said. “It given to me by someone who would know but I guess it was inaccurate.”

“They are looking to get him out of there,” Hempstead said. “…I guess I misspoke based on information that was given me.”

31 comments

John Levin September 18, 2017 at 8:25 am

Assuming everything in this story has been reported accurately, it reflects poorly on the competency of Norwalk Comptroller Frederic Gilden. Is there a different interpretation?

David Westmoreland September 18, 2017 at 11:15 am

I have no idea what the situation is here, who’s right or wrong, or if if it is just a mistake or misunderstanding regarding Oak Hills restaurant rent. However, in my role on the Historical Commission, I have worked with Fred Gilden numerous times over the years and always found him to be an extremely helpful, courteous, and highly competent employee of the City of Norwalk.

Bill McFarland September 18, 2017 at 12:56 pm

Apparently Mr. Hempstead and other City Officials do not read the monthly financials or minutes of the Oak Hills Park Authority. If he had, he would have seen that the Restaurant at Oak hills was up to date on their rent and that there is much more to be concerned with at Oak Hills.

If he had read the financials he would have seen that although the place looks fabulous, from the $1,500,000 in state taxpayer funds that got dumped into the place, there expenses are outpacing their revenues and will continue to do so without major cutbacks. The employee salaries were increased 16%, lease fees for golf carts and other expenses are through the roof.

They currently have almost $200K less in cash then the same period last year even with the restaurant paying ON TIME and the City of Norwalk refinancing a loan owed to the taxpayers of Norwalk on capital expenditures which will be worth next to nothing far beyond when the last loan payment will be paid back, and that brings up another question, was the loan payment of $130k made to the Norwalk taxpayers on 9/1 of this month or is that late like Mr. Hempstead thought the restaurant was?

Amar Haouari September 19, 2017 at 9:46 am

JERRY CRAWLEY {…}
Nancy i will Show you my phone to prove that i spoke to him september to him on September 13 amd he perfectly was aware that the rent was paid on time !
The fact is that the situation between OHPA And Our minority business is GRAVE!

Editor’s note: Comment edited to remove an insult.

Amar Haouari September 19, 2017 at 10:16 am

@Westmorland
You should focus on stopping the destruction of the architectural heritage and landscape of Norwalk, look at the past black and white picture and then look at the color pictures of Norwalk today…
Got the message?

Sharon September 19, 2017 at 2:20 pm

Nancy – I am appalled that you would let Amar defame someone on your site. You really need to pull that comment.

Amar Haouari September 19, 2017 at 4:00 pm

My views are clear,
altright elements in disguise have infiltrates OHPA
catch my driffed ?Sharon and Tom…..
My name is
Amar Haouari
i am not a slave i am standing up for myself the OHPA with the cotton fields owner mentality think they can put the noose around my neck …..
NO WAY !!!!!

Bob Smith September 19, 2017 at 11:36 pm

@Amar

Very unprofessional to make an asseration of that magnitude. The authority has served the tax paying golfers of “Norwalk” for many years. From reading the minutes of the meetings from the past months – it looks like the golf authority suffers from rent issues from the lessee. This should be sought out by the common council finance committee.

Amar Haouari September 20, 2017 at 10:35 am

Common coucil finance commitee are being manipulated…
OHPA is trying to empty the restaurant and will have no rent mark my word!!
The mayor knows and everyone around !
Then i will want to hear what you have to say then when the authority goes bankrupt .
remember that one
if OHPA goes bankrupt they surrender the restaurant to the city,then they can clear they books ,come back to life with clean books and get the 4 millions dollars driving range

Paul Cantor September 20, 2017 at 12:22 pm

@ Bob Smith

Yes, the authority has served the interests of golfers from Norwalk, New Canaan, Wilton, Westport and elsewhere by overseeing the management of a golf course whose user fees don’t cover its costs and so has to be subsidized by taxpayers to the tune of millions of dollars. Meanwhile it takes up nearly all the land in a public park that might otherwise be enjoyed by the 90% of Norwalk taxpayers who do not play golf.

Bill McFarland September 20, 2017 at 1:08 pm

Even with the Norwalk and out of town usage of the facility combined, the operating expenses on labor, chemicals, insurance, equipment leases, capital loan payments (if paid), are exceeding the revenues. It’s all in black in white in the financial reports. How long can this go on? Does the City have a blind eye on all this and are just hoping it will all correct itself?

will harris September 20, 2017 at 2:55 pm

Oh mm’an, here we go again. Now they’ve gotten Cantor involved. This is going to be fun. I don’t even play golf, but Norwalk needs a golf course. I read they added more park land and walking trails for non-golfers to use. I may go check it out just to see what the fuss is about. Still don’t know why they needed extra park land. There are PLENTY of parks in Norwalk. Let the golfers have theirs just like the dog walkers have Taylor, the sunbathers have the beach and the pot heads have Cranbury Park.

Bill McFarland September 20, 2017 at 3:33 pm

@Will

Norwalk needs a golf course that the golfers pay for with their usage fees, currently it is LOSING money and all the non golfers of Norwalk will be subsidizing the golfers fun.

Bryan Meek September 20, 2017 at 3:43 pm

@Bill. The Parks budget is $3 million with several million more a year going to debt payments to pay for upkeep and improvements. Besides golf, are there other park usages and activities you think we shouldn’t be subsidizing? Also, I don’t see a set of financials here or on the website, but OHPA is usually cash positive when you add back non cash adjustments like depreciation expense. Can you point me to the line in the city budgets where direct cash payments are going to OHPA right now? Thanks.

will harris September 20, 2017 at 4:03 pm

@Bryan
That is a good point. There is no line item in the city budget for Oak Hills and Oak Hills does not belong to Parks & Rec.

I heard that if Oak Hills didn’t have to pay the debt on the restaurant building that the city built, and passed the debt to them, that they would be in good financial shape.

I did some poking around and @Bob seems to have it right. The rent on the restaurant was supposed to cover the debt on the building. I don’t know the numbers, but was told it doesn’t even come close.

I guess that @Bill and @Paul should do their homework before penning unsubstantiated claims.

And, I don’t know who @Amar is, but he definitely has a gripe with someone.

Bill McFarland September 20, 2017 at 4:32 pm

@Bryan:

Open space such as the Calf Pasture, Cranbury Park, Taylor Farm and other City owned property is available for all Norwalk taxpayers to utilize for no fees involved. If the golf course was available for Norwalk residents to use at no charge like the rest of the parks, I would have no problem with that, but I understand that’s impossible because the cost to operate a golf facility such as Oak Hills takes an exorbitant amount of money. The golf usage fees should exceed the operating costs and any capital improvement costs to cover the fun of the sport for the minority of Norwalkers that play like any business should, which it is currently NOT doing, as stated in the July 2017 Financial Commentary presented to the Board of Estimate “We can not continue with a trend of our expenses outpacing our revenues” and “salaries have increased 16% compared to a 1% increase in revenues”. OHPA may show a profit in the short term summer months, but what about the entire year? I understand that the City currently has no line item where direct cash payments are going to OHPA but loans have been given to them in the past which need to be paid back, has the current payment of $130K (after 3x times refinancing)been paid for this year? Because by my calculations, having approximately $200K less in cash at the same period last year, they will be out of operating capital very soon. So if the LOAN is not paid back, then YES the City is giving cash payments to the OHPA.

Bryan Meek September 20, 2017 at 5:04 pm

@Bill. The beach is free? Funny, it seems to me I can’t get a sticker unless I pay several $100 in car property taxes. No doubt the golf course may need assistance, but as another reader points out above, it is because a former mayor decided to put a $3 million restaurant there and have the authority pay for it, when the course only needed a burger stand. I think that is what is meant by the rent not covering the expense. The current vendor may be paying all of their rent as OHPA needed to get something out of it, but OHPA was sandbagged with $3 million in debt that only a few political leaders really ever wanted and most of the golfers could tell you wasn’t needed.

It all depends on our priorities as a city. We’ve spent almost $10 million on lit turf fields and forgiven $25 million for the aquarium, not to mention giving away prime real estate for nothing to developers who disappear in the middle of the night with $5 million in tax payer money. It would be nice for once to hear issues with this instead of the few people who hate the golf course, bought there homes knowing it was there, and want the rest of us to pay to keep it their private nature reserve instead of giving an activity to some 10,000 tax paying residents.

Bill McFarland September 20, 2017 at 5:41 pm

@Bryan:

So what your saying, as a City Official, is that is’s Ok for the OHPA to not pay back the loan because other forgivness has been given when it probably should not have, instead of trying to fix the problem.

@Will:

In your “poking” around did you notice that approximately $2 million was spent on the restaurant building not the $3 million Mr. Meek has stated, $3M was BORROWED, but the other $1M in funds in addition to the restaurant note was for an irrigation system, cart paths, operating capital and funds to get through the winter months. If the City was to forgive the debt on the restaurant alone AND collect the $72K rent for the restaurant (which was paid on time) the OHPA would still have trouble paying the bills. So, of the $130K note payment the $72K in rent almost if not all covers the expense incurred.

Sharon September 20, 2017 at 5:54 pm

@Bill – Great! You go convince Bob Barron & the Common Council to forgive the debt on the restaurant & we can see how well Oak does.

Bill McFarland September 20, 2017 at 6:19 pm

@Sharon

If the City was to forgive the portion of the loan associated with the restaurant and then in turn the City was to collect the rent associated with the building as they should, the OHPA will be no better off then they currently are. The problem at Oak Hills is that the revenue from golf is not enough to cover the operational expenses of the golf facility. The expenses that OHPA have saddled themselves with such as golf carts with computerized GPS found at resorts, golf surf boards, over $100k in chemicals for finely manicured turf and an extremely high payroll will never get them out of the hole they have dug so deep.

Bryan Meek September 20, 2017 at 7:35 pm

@Bill. I’m not suggesting loans be forgiven. But compared to other subsidized public projects, it is hardly a poster child of dysfunction. $600k per unit in replacing Washington Village never gets half a mention. But, Oaks always seems to get the vocal minority out who hate the golf course in spite of the 1000s and 1000s of residents who enjoy it. The ones who never go to or use the 100% subsidized parks, theatres, museums, housing projects, etc…. I know I speak for many who feel a full service golf course with a driving range and burger stand is what was needed. You can fault them for trying different things, but what else are they going to do with the $2 million albatross on its neck? I promise you if it were to shut down and revert to parks and recs the subsidies needed to manage it would go through the roof compared to the debt service it is afforded now.

Paul Cantor September 20, 2017 at 7:48 pm

@ Mr. Meek,

Because I disagree with you doesn’t make me someone who hates golf and your suggestion that it does is an ad hominem attack rather than a rational response to the argument that golf courses are not public goods that merit the support of taxpayers. A public park, on the other hand, is a public good and not a private nature reserve. Furthermore, the fact that you and others pay taxes on the automobiles you own is not an argument that public parks like Calf Pasture beach don’t merit taxpayer support. Here is how Raymond Keating, the conservative chief economist with the Small Business and Entrepreneurship Council and a golfer puts it:

“In the end, there is no justification whatsoever for government involvement in the golf business. Even if one subscribes to the idea of market failure, certainly none of the criteria for such failure—i.e., monopoly, public goods, external costs, or inadequate information—exist in the case of golf courses. The only reasons for the existence of government golf courses are patronage (another opportunity for politicians to dole out jobs), special-interest pressures (some golfers want cheap golf, courtesy of the taxpayers), and government revenue (politicians believe they can make money with golf facilities).

“In reality, affordable golf, played on well-maintained, high-quality golf courses, can be and is provided by the private sector. Note that 54 percent of all golf courses in this country are privately owned and open to the public.

“Meanwhile, government golf courses usually are not as well kept as private facilities, and lose money just as often as they make money [even though they operate in public parks on taxpayer subsidized land].

“In certain aspects, though, private golf courses operate at a disadvantage with government courses [so taxpayer subsidized public courses undermine the ability of private courses to survive and prosper]. Government facilities can artificially drive down the price of a round of golf, and also fall back on the taxpayers when losses are incurred.

“As an answer to government golf woes, many argue that the operations of municipal golf courses should be contracted out to the private sector. While a step in the right direction—examples abound of private golf course management firms turning around government golf facilities—this is but a small step.”

Bill McFarland September 20, 2017 at 7:59 pm

My guess is that the loan has not been paid, and that their is back door politics going on right now to figure out how to make it look like it’s ok that it was not paid and Mr. Hempstead was looking (hoping) Mr. Haouari was late on the restaurant rent to make him look like the bad guy as to why the OHPA could not make the payment.

I guess only time will tell….

Debora Goldstein September 21, 2017 at 12:34 am

The golf course is actually supposed to be paying the City out of its profits, so though there is no direct transfer of funds to the golf course, the subsidy is in the form of use of taxpayer funded parkland at no charge, in refinanced loans which piggyback on the City’s triple-A bond rating and in revenues it is NOT paying to the city because it fails to cover its expenses. It also had the City pick up the tab for the remediation of some leaky fuel/oil tanks on the property even though they were the responsibility of the OHPA.

It’s convenient to blame the restaurant for its woes, but OHPA was failing to meet it’s obligations to the City under the lease BEFORE the restaurant was built using the money that it had ALREADY bonded.

In addition, the OHPA appears to STILL be in violation of the post-grant restrictions of the open space grant from the state used to purchase the parkland. The restaurant is NOT a permitted use on land purchase with the grant.

will harris September 21, 2017 at 12:03 pm

Debora Goldstein – the OHPA is paying for the oil tank remediation even though they were probably leaking BEFORE the city passed the buck to Oak Hills.

Debora Goldstein September 21, 2017 at 12:59 pm

@ Will,

Perhaps I was confused by the very public statements issued by OHPA on the subject in 2013 and 2014, and the fact that both the PW department and the Finance department were involved in reviewing the estimates.

https://www.nancyonnorwalk.com/2013/06/oak-hills-official-contradicts-chairman-on-who-will-pay-for-leaky-tanks/

https://www.nancyonnorwalk.com/2014/01/oak-hills-oil-tank-cleanup-estimate-at-least-33k/

I was present at the meeting at which the “not on the backs of the golfers” comment was made.

As for the City “passing the buck”, the OHPA took possession under the lease knowing full well that they would be responsible for any remediation unless the leaking occurred before their occupancy, under Article 14 of the lease.

The so-called “master plan” from that era included a full survey of the property and soils reports, but no effort was made to utilize the indemnity from the City until 15 years later, when a determination of when the leak occured would be difficult, if not impossible.

I would be interested to know how it came to be that OHPA is now covering the remediation, given its position that the leak pre-dates its occupancy in our city park.

BTW, your lease also calls for full reimbursement for services provided to the OHPA by any city employee. So, has the City provided you with an accounting of the time spent by City employees on this matter so you can settle up? Just curious.

Paul Cantor September 21, 2017 at 1:26 pm

I note no one has yet responded to Mr. McFarland’s question regarding whether the OHPA has been making good on its loan repayments.

Below are minutes of OHPA’s Controller Mark Gartner’s comments on Oak Hills finances available on the city’s website at http://www.norwalkct.org/Archive.aspx?AMID=175

Excerpt from the June 15, 2017 OHPA minutes: Mr. Gartner stated that there is no date set yet for the audit, but that we will have numbers for the July meeting. He stated that May was a poor month. Revenues were down and expenses were up. …Mr. Gartner stated that we are $80 thousand in debt on our line of credit. It was $90 thousand and we paid down $10 thousand in May. For the month of May, Golf Revenue is lower by $10 thousand versus last year. Operating income is down $38 thousand. Mr. Gartner stated that Year-to-Date, total revenue for the eleven-month period is down $108 thousand. There were less rounds played but higher prices helped. YTD vs Budget we are down $80 thousand. Ms. Williams stated that we are not making any money. She asked Mr. Ruiz about the number of employees working for him. He stated that customer service has increased as well as overall morale. He stated that tasks such as cleaning carts with one person, as was the practice before he came to Oak Hills, left the carts in subpar condition. This led to deterioration of the fleet which contributed to significant expense with battery replacement and the carts not being rotated into use evenly. He stated that there will not be use of overtime going forward.

Excerpts from the July 20, 2017 OHPA minutes: Mr. Gartner stated that the Year End is complete but that the audit has not yet been completed. We will hopefully wrap up the budget next week. For the year we ended up with a little less than 36,600 rounds which is 5,100 less than last year. Cart rounds were, including boards, just under 20,000. That is 3,000 less than last year. Mr. Gartner stated that we have re-categorized a few things on the Profit & Loss Statement. He stated that we have created a Sales & Operations Department, which will be for Mr. Ruiz. Mr. Gartner stated that Mr. Schell will have Park Maintenance and Equipment and Mr. Gartner will oversee general administration. City of Norwalk Oak Hills Park Authority July 20, 2017 Page 3 of 4 Mr. Gartner stated that for the month of June it is hard to compare to last year because last year there were a number of adjustments that went through that materially affected the numbers. Mr. Gartner stated that cash is lower by about $90,000 versus last year, and that includes an $80,000 borrowing from our line of credit. The reason for the lower numbers is the weather and construction. For the month of June, our Operating Income is relatively flat compared to last year. For the year, total revenue is down $128,000. Personnel and Employee expenses are higher by $90,000 over last year. Administrative Expenses are down nearly $50,000.

There are no OHPA minutes for August. What is the reason for that? Did the Authority meet in August? If not, why not?

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NancyOnNorwwalk.com was conceived as the place to go for Norwalk residents to get the real, unvarnished story about what is going on in and around their city. NancyOnNorwalk does not intend to be a print newspaper online; rather, it exists to pull the curtain back and shine a spotlight on how Norwalk is run and what is happening regarding issues that have an impact on taxpayers’ pocketbooks and safety. As an independent site, NancyOnNorwalk’s first and only allegiance is to the reader.

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Nancy came to Norwalk in September 2010 and, after reporting on Norwalk for two years for another company, resigned to begin Nancy On Norwalk so she engage in journalism the way it was meant to be done. She is married to career journalist Mark Chapman, has a son, Eric (the artist and web designer who built this website), and two cats – a middle-aged lady and a young hottie who are learning how to peacefully co-exist.