Updated, 4:38 p.m.: Copy edits.
NORWALK, Conn. – Restaurant owners who have been leasing space in Oak Hills Park say they have been damaged by the Oak Hills Park Authority and are seeking $300,000 in compensation from the city of Norwalk.
Amar Haouari, Vincent LaForte and Stephanie Myers met with NancyOnNorwalk last week to air their concerns, alleging bullying tactics from “four or five members of the Oak Hills Park Authority” as they have operated the Oak Hills Restaurant on the Green.
Their lease is up on Jan. 15. OHPA is looking to renovate the restaurant building and put in a pro shop.
“They are trying to prevent us from selling the business. They are trying to prevent us from staying in the business. They have made it a hard time since the beginning,” LaForte said, specifically identifying former OHPA Chairman Ernie DesRochers as a prime source of their grief.
DesRochers, who is running to represent District E on the Common Council, declined to respond to the allegations made by the trio. OPHA Chairman Jerry Crowley referred questions to the Authority’s lawyer, G. Randall Avery.
Avery denied the accusations.
The background of the situation
Haouri and LaForte were awarded a lease to the restaurant in December 2012, when Bob Virgulak was chairman of the Authority. The Authority had been under fire for financial issues, as in early 2012 its debt to the city was restructured for the second time because it was having trouble making the payments.
“We took over when the space was empty. They were in dire need,” Haouri said.
That group of OHPA members “didn’t bother us,” LaForte said.
The pair had been in the restaurant business for years but this was their first foray into owning a restaurant business.
Haouri and LaForte have spoken out before, complaining in October 2015 that a political storm was undermining their business just as it got going; the pair had picked up catering business after the Continental Manor closed.
In October, 2015, DesRochers and OHPA member Clyde Mount said they were surprised that Haouari and LaForte were upset.
“That is a tough building,” DesRochers said. “That is a tough business model. It is very frustrating for them and for us. He calls it a catering facility, he calls it a catering business. Well, that is not the reason it was built, exclusively. It’s important upon us to make sure that the golfers are served properly, which is breakfast, lunch, halfway house is open on a consistent basis, breakfast is on a consistent basis, those are issues that we have always had with operators out there and it’s the same issues we have had with two operators before that. There comes a time when you have to lay it out and make sure that you get everybody on the same page.”
The Oak Hills Park Authority was created in 1997 under Mayor Frank Esposito. It exists for “the purpose of acquiring, constructing, operating, maintaining and managing the Oak Hills Park, including the golf course, tennis courts and related recreational facilities currently located therein,” according to City Code 73-1.
Plans to build a new restaurant at the park were swiftly a topic of controversy.
Former Mayor Alex Knopp, in a 2002 statement obtained by NancyOnNorwalk in 2013, said that the restaurant needed to be big enough to serve the indoor needs of golfers participating in tournaments at the park. That would be up to 120 players, he said.
“Moving forward with the restaurant will provide an important new source of revenue without affecting the affordability of Oak Hills for regular play. A restaurant at Oak Hills will give the course a greater ability to raise funds from golf and tennis outings and corporate events,” Knopp said.
The size of the restaurant building reflects Knopp’s intentions.
The 2014-approved OHP master plan includes a passage outlining a plan:
“Construct a new 900-square-foot Welcome Center (Pro Shop and Admin office) adjacent to north deck of restaurant building. The design will be complementary to the existing restaurant design. The center would be the focus of golfers and users entering into the facility and its location adjacent to the restaurant should allow significant throughput in the restaurant building.”
More recent background
LaForte said on Oct. 26 that DesRochers “tried to use us, more or less” years ago by suggesting that they negotiate a rent reduction. A short while later, the Authority requested that Haouari and LaForte give up the bar space.
That would mean building a new bar in the dining area, which would take out a lot of space because the Liquor Authority requires that a wall be behind a bar, LaForte said.
“Most of our income comes from catering events. Actually, we need more space than the space we have,” LaForte said. “We listened to their plan and there was nothing in there for us as far as income when we’re downtime, construction time. We would’ve lost a lot of business. So, we listened to the whole plan. There was nothing that made sense for us.”
“Once we said no they started giving us a really hard time,” LaForte said.
Former park manager Shelly Guyer “started spreading rumors in public forums” about the Authority losing golf outings due to the restaurant, LaForte said, asserting that he called the customers who had allegedly backed out they denied the accusation.
“They booked again the following year,” LaForte said.
LaForte banned Guyer from the restaurant and eventually DesRochers brought Guyer in and demanded that he be served, LaForte said.
“He started threatening me with never get anything for the restaurant again. A real abuse of power. The guy is not trustworthy, he tries to flex his muscles. We have been on bad terms ever since,” LaForte said.
Then-golf pro Ed Ruiz told golfers not to go to the restaurant, LaForte said.
“There’s 20 or 30 of them who will” pass on Ruiz’ comments, he said. “They come to us all the time.”
“So they are hurting our business in a number of ways,” LaForte said, going on to assert that Ruiz programmed new golf carts last summer not to go to the restaurant.
Avery denied this.
“The OHPA denies that anyone in its employ told golfers not to use the restaurant. The exact opposite is the case. The carts are computer programmed to operate along the restaurant at the deck entrance so that there are no cart operations beyond the view of the cart employees,” Avery said Thursday in an email.
He also said:
“The OHPA has had to deal with AV Management LLC’s claim that they were not making sufficient money to pay the rent in the Lease that it assumed from Rolling Green, Inc., for some time. The OHPA has also had to deal with the failure of AV Management, LLC, to be open at the times required under the Lease, and providing the services required under the Lease.”
Attempts to sell the restaurant
“In 2016, we put the business up for sale,” LaForte said. “We had our first people with an agreed price, I think it was in February. We had a meeting with the golf authority in the prospective buyers, Amar and myself, and the broker. At that meeting they started proposing all new conditions and they kind of scared these guys off. About two weeks later they said, ‘deal’s off.’”
Another potential buyer was denied by the Authority, with no written reason given, LaForte said.
“In our lease, it says clearly you cannot unreasonably deny the sale of business,” LaForte said.
“In August, we had another gentleman who was very well-qualified, who owns multiple restaurants, a very wealthy gentleman, very astute businessman. They kept stalling, and stalling and stalling and stalling, until he finally lost interest in it and walked away,” LaForte said.
Avery, in the Thursday email, said:
“Under the provisions of the OHPA/AV Management LLC lease, any proposed assignment of the lease to another operator requires the consent of the OHPA. In carrying out its fiduciary duties to the citizens of Norwalk, it met with every proposed assignee, and requested basic operating plans and financial information from them. It also conducted independent background information on these persons/organizations. All but one of those persons/organizations WITHDREW of their own accord. There was no stalling of any kind, and the members of the OHPA have spent hundreds of volunteer hours conducting those efforts.
“The other buyer group was disqualified for reasons revealed in the independent background information. Those reasons are fully known to AV Management, LLC and its commercial restaurant broker. Because of the nature of them, the OHPA will not disclose them publicly unless required to do so.”
A meeting in the mayor’s office
Haouri and LaForte were “a little late” paying the rent in March, LaForte said. Two weeks later they were notified that the rent was “arbitrarily” being raised from $6,800 to $9,000, he said.
Mayor Harry Rilling mediated the situation on May 8 and “when we left that meeting everything was fine,” LaForte said.
The lease provides them with two five-year options but when they decided to exercise their option, they were told that they had agreed in the mayor’s office not to do that in exchange for reduced rent, LaForte said.
“Which is not true,” LaForte said. “I called Jerry Crowley myself. He thinks I’m out of my mind, that was what was said. It was not said.”
Rilling, in a late Thursday email, said that LaForte and Haouri agreed on May 8 not to exercise their option in return for reduced rent.
Myers gets involved
Myers, LaForte’s wife and an investor in the business, then had a lawyer send a letter to the Authority.
Avery put conversations with the broker into a letter, Myers said.
“I wrote ‘that is retaliation’ in my letter,” she said. “You cannot put that out there as an officer of the court it’s very a basic principle, that that’s confidential. … It’s their level of arrogance.”
“It also needs to be noted here that the Lease expires on January 15, 2018. AV Management, LLC, agreed to vacate the premises on or before that date in a meeting conducted on May 8, 2017, in exchange for the continuation of rent reduction through January 15, 2018. The OHPA honored that agreement. AV Management LLC now threatens to force eviction proceedings. This agreement was reached in the presence of Mayor Harry Rilling and his deputy in the Mayor’s Office. This is the information that Stephanie Myers claims was ‘confidential,’ and she objected to my informing AV Management LLC’s broker. It is not confidential information.
“Further, the Lease by its terms requires a new negotiated rent beginning on January 16, 2018. Most of the alleged purchasers never sought to have a rent discussion with the OHPA. One group proposed deep rental cuts before withdrawing their interest in the Lease.”
“The Authority has been allowed for many years to run roughshod over anyone happens to occupy this business here,” Myers said. “…They have issues of entitlement now, when I think nobody has ever bucked them before, or ever spoken up before. So, you get used to being a bully, and specifically Ernie DesRochers is quite the bully. It’s unfortunate because he’s running for public office.”
The Authority is being punitive because the restaurant owners stand up for themselves and for park employees who come to them with complaints, she said, after Haouri had alleged that he had stood up for young people who work in the park.
“As Amar said, we are speaking up for some of the young folks that work here, who might be intimidated,” Myers said. “I want to say that all the customers … have been wonderful. They have sustained us through this terrible experience with the Oak Hills Park Authority. They are just wonderful people. Norwalk people are very warm, very comforting and just I’m very honest with your feelings about us and frankly other than that small group of people on the Park Authority, people have just said wonderful things. They put it in writing. I have letter after letter.”
“As Amar said, it is my civic duty, my personal duty to my own integrity to speak up when something is wrong such as the Oak Hills Park Authority, and their sandbox bullying techniques or their idea of their ‘Trumpian’ way of doing politics. It is simply unacceptable,” Myers said.
A question posed by Common Council member Doug Hempstead (R-At Large) in September is an example, she said.
Hempstead asked Norwalk Comptroller Frederic Gilden if the restaurant was behind on rent. Gilden said yes, but that was later refuted by Crowley. Hempstead then apologized, saying, “I guess I misspoke based on information that was given me.”
“It’s just the chatter, it’s just very childish chatter that keeps being put out there, things that are simply not true, but once it is out in the universe how do you pull it back?” Myers said.
Undermining a sale?
“Even before we put the business up for sale they were marketing our business,” LaForte said. “We have the emails to prove it. They emailed us by accident.”
“We sent them a legal letter for them to stop doing it. They stopped because we had the proof of it,” Haouri said.
Emails provided by Haouri on Thursday show that in July 2016, Oak Hills Golf Course superintendent Jim Schell had spoken to the owner of MacKenzie’s Bar and Grill, a Stamford establishment.
“I remember my first year he came and asked how he could ‘get in that building’. That guy has more restaurant experience than anyone I know,” Schell wrote to Authority members.
This predates the May 8 meeting in the mayor’s office.
“The OHPA did not market their business. Several local restaurant operators have expressed interest in the restaurant operation, and their names were given to AV Management, LLC,” Avery said.
“It’s all just to make our life miserable here,” LaForte said. “And they did it, they succeeded, that’s why we’re leaving. Their whole game plan was to keep stalling, not have anybody buy this place from us, and when our lease is up they are not going to renew it for us. So, we have to walk away. Our investment is gone. Everything is gone. For what I don’t know.”
LaForte and Haouri said they have lost $200,000, plus the $150,000 they invested initially.
“We are offering to the City and the Authority a path of peace,” Haouri said. “All we want to be made whole and move on with our lives. …So far, the politicians have all disappeared. Not one of them is around.”
“We know everybody. They all disappeared,” LaForte said.
Haouri said it’s his right to speak out about issues, his civic duty.
“They don’t like when people fight back,” Haouri said. “We had a few heated exchanges with the Authority because it’s four years, we are working seven days a week, we are tired. Then we have those guys coming in harassing us for one reason or another. Every morning, every afternoon, in the middle of service is always something. But obviously, they have two sets of rules. When they have mistakes, they hide it. They try to do everything to cover. Then when one of my employees comes in 20 minutes late they contact the lawyer send a letter.”
“I find it shocking, from a business perspective, that the mayor of Norwalk has no authority over the Oak Hills Park Authority,” Myers said. “If he does, it’s probably just in writing. But in actuality he cannot seem to rein them in. He cannot seem to have any control over them to make them stop and do the right thing. We all agree that their actions are punitive. We all agree but they just moving in that direction and again, like he said, they been emboldened for all of these years of just getting away and doing whatever they want. And furthermore, they are financially stressed. It is such mismanagement, they are having problems paying the bond back to the city of Norwalk, which is taxpayer dollars.”
“I am calling on the Authority to resign from their positions,” Haouri said. “The mayor should order that. They shouldn’t be in that position. The Authority itself is flawed by design. It should not exist. The mayor needs to take action now, and make his decisions right now. It’s time, it’s election time. I want to see the officials are going to do about it because this is the perfect opportunity for them to show leadership right now.”
They’re wanted in Ridgefield, Stamford and Greenwich, they said.
“We are not interested in any long-term relationship with the Authority anymore because they’ve done so much damage to us,” Haouri said. “…If some politicians don’t want us, buy us out and let us go.”
“We are not interested in litigation but if they want to go there, obviously we are going to contact the proper authorities and deal with it,” Haouri said. “Obviously, it’s going to do a lot of damage to Norwalk and I feel bad because I like the city very much. People have been very nice to us… It’s going to hurt the city again just because of four or five guys that have zero restaurant experience – zero. They don’t know anything about restaurants. Every day they come here and tell me how to run a restaurant.”
Further thoughts from OHPA
Avery also said:
- “Once AV Management, LLC, agreed to vacate the premises on January 15, 2018, for the continued rent reduction, the OHPA began to focus its attention on how to make a future restaurant more successful. Rent payments are used by the OHPA to pay the City of Norwalk for its bonded indebtedness.
- “The OHPA was routinely advised that the facility needed a regular form of bar service. Any such bar service would require City approval.
- “The OHPA had previously determined that locating the golf purchases (golf round tickets and merchandise) in the restaurant building would effectively require every user of the golf course to be in the same hallway as the restaurant. Virtually every purchaser proposed by AV agreed with this premise. That concept was approved in the OHPA Master Plan in 2014.”
- “Should any further potential assignees appear in a fashion that allows a near-immediate agreement with AV Management LLC, the OHPA will vet them. However, in light of the expected vacancy of the building in January, 2018, the OHPA has reserved the right to make a public call for interested operators via the Request for Proposal process under the direction of the City Purchasing Department.”