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Opinion: The saga of Oak Hills

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   Once upon a time nine of 100 people who lived in Norwalk wanted to play golf.  But not one of them wanted to pay to play on private courses.

“Too expensive,” they said.

So, they visited Mr. Wannabee Elected.

“Hi, Mr. Wannabee,” they said.  “We shall support you if you’ll give us a golf course.”

“O.K., I like to play golf too and of course I could use your support,” said Mr. Wannabee.

Soon thereafter an autonomous body composed of golfers and called the Oak Hills Park Authority was established and began operating an 18-hole golf course in Oak Hills Park.

“Don’t worry,” Mr. Wannabee told the 91 out of 100 of his constituents who would have preferred the park remain a park, “user fees will cover the costs of the golf course.”

But they never have.

“The reason,” the OHPA said at first, “is our restaurant is too small.”

“Don’t worry,” Mr. Wannabee said, “I’ll lend you a few million taxpayer dollars to build a bigger one.”

And so, the smaller restaurant was torn down and the bigger one built.  But the new restaurant did not relieve the OHPA’s losses.  Rather, it added to them.

“The problem,” the OHPA then claimed, “is the new restaurant is too big. What we really need is a driving range.”

“Don’t worry,” Mr. Wannabee said, “with more taxpayer dollars I’ll pay for a National Golf Foundation study to confirm that conclusion.”   But when the study was completed it indicated that a driving range in Oak Hills was more likely to suffer losses itself than to cover the losses of the golf course.

“O.K.,” the OHPA said.  “What we really need is a sit-down bar.”

And so, with more taxpayer dollars the OHPA plans to construct the bar.  Soon, therefore, we may expect the ghost of James M. Buchannan to sidle into it and exclaim: “Wow!  What a perfect example of special interest politics run amok!”

Then, while still sober the ghost of the man who won the Nobel Prize in economics for his seminal work in public policy might continue:

“Just take a look at the costs and benefits of the golf course in Oak Hills Park from the point of view of Norwalk taxpayers.

“First, the benefits:

“The benefit golfers from Norwalk receive may be calculated as the difference between the cost per round of playing on a private course and the cost of playing on the course in Oak Hills Park multiplied by the number of rounds played.

“Second, the costs:

“All Norwalk taxpayers as a whole pick up the multimillion-dollar difference between the cost of operating and maintaining the golf course and the user fees paid by golfers.

“Furthermore, the nine out of ten taxpayers who do not play golf are deprived of a park where they could walk; picnic; play soccer, basketball, or softball; jog, swim or just hang out with family and friends.

“And then, too, there are the environmental costs.  Golf courses use massive amounts of chemicals and water to keep their greens green.

“In short from the point of view of all the taxpayers of Norwalk the cost of the golf course far outweighs its benefits.

“And golfers should consider the fact that government subsidized golf courses undermine private sector golf courses’ ability to survive.   So even from their point of view the long-term costs of government subsidized municipal golf courses may outweigh their short-term benefits.

“But instead Norwalk golfers formed a coalition to get their share of government largesse.   And elected officials continue to cater to them at the expense of all those they were elected to represent.

 “Yep, a perfect example of special interest politics run amok!

“Now, after having one too many drinks, I hope I don’t run over some kid on his way to or from one of the three schools in the residential neighborhood where this terrific bar is located.”

Paul Cantor

30 comments

Lisa Brinton Thomson September 2, 2018 at 6:36 am

Oak Hills is truly a recreational asset for the City of Norwalk and I believe it has untapped potential, similar to a Waveney Park in New Canaan or Compo Beach in Westport. I have spoken with those involved with the authority and they agree.

How the ill conceived, oversized, financial albatross of a building/restaurant came to be built appears to be a matter of debate. Mr. Cantor has his theories and I have mine, but I agree it has been a financial drain on the park.

One thing I’ve learned is that land use debacles in Norwalk usually rest somewhere down at City Hall, with half-baked economic studies and absolutely no strategic long term plans.

However, to pick on the golfers, suggests we should also blame the students for the overcrowded schools, the neighbors on Quintard for the prison house, GGP for the Mall, Metro North for the Walk Bridge, Poko for Wall Street, and developers for the apartments… I could go on.

My point is, with less than 30% voter turn out in local elections, Norwalk residents have abdicated holding its City government responsible for anything. We can blame special interest groups all we like, but at the end of the day – power and authority rests with the people you vote into office. If you want a well run park, city or state – start voting!!

will harris September 2, 2018 at 7:29 am

Nancy – really ?!?!?!?!
Re-hashing old {…} that no one read the first time it was printed?

Edited to remove a vulgarity, a violation of the comments policy.

Rosanne Conoscenti September 2, 2018 at 8:16 am

I am a Norwalk resident….not a golfer.

However, I couldn’t hold back from commenting on the wonderful experience I recently had at the Clubhouse Grille at Oak Hills. We celebrated my mother’s 100th birthday there last month. Joe and his staff were so accommodating and couldn’t do enough for us. The food got great reviews, from appetizers and main course to the champagne toast! The 4 hour event stayed on schedule, the service was impeccable. Not bad for a party with 54 guests!

I only wish more folks were aware of what a great place this little gem of a restaurant is, and more important, it is OPEN TO THE PUBLIC, not only members and golfers. I have been there a few times for lunch, and I feel the prices are reasonable along with a decent selection. A perfect setting for alfresco dining on the porch, with overhead coverage for those “iffy” days and a great view. Or inside with AC if preferred. Nice to be able to eat outside in quiet surroundings and a lovely view, without cars and fumes and folks glued to their phones brushing by a few feet away. Not to say I don’t or won’t patronize those restaurants in town that can’t offer this. I do have my regular favorites! I only wish more folks knew about this great dining opportunity right here in Norwalk.

cc-rider September 2, 2018 at 8:37 am

Most hair brained article I have read in a long time. Everyone who plays public golf is a want-to-be??? Does that mean if you drive a Chevy and not a Rolls Royce you are a want-to-be? By Paul’s logic every NORWALK resident is a want-to-be because we all don’t live in New Canaan or Greenwich??? I speak for all NON readers when I say we are all sorry Paul that chose to live near Oak Hills and not Cranbury Park.

Piberman September 2, 2018 at 10:14 am

Clyde Ripka does a booming business at Calf Pasture Beach. But the Oak Hills restaurant has never been successful either in attracting tenants nor paying the required monthly rentals. Clearly there is a management problem for City Hall and the Authroity in finding suitable tenants. Many have suggested hiring restaurant management consultants to help our City Hall team. Some recent experiences with the new tenants were very disappointing. We were the only ones present for lunch on several occasions. During the summer peak season.

Rick September 2, 2018 at 10:56 am

The majority of people living in Norwalk work elsewhere, and the majority of people working in Norwalk live elsewhere per onthemap.ces.census.gov/).

The figure for those renting as opposed to ownership is out of whack also.

Those moving to rent expect services those who own expect to wait.

There is so much riding on this next election to recruit those who don’t care and those who do.

Stan Young September 2, 2018 at 11:05 am

Paul this golf course is an asset to the town PERIOD. Putting that aside lets look at the problem, the Authority and many others (golfers and politicians) feel the restaurant building is the financial down fall for the course but look at these facts. For about a decade the restaurateurs have been paying the Authority as much as $9,000 a month or $108,000 a year! You can read previous N.O.N articles about it. Now with the payment for their debt at $132,000 which not only includes the restaurant building but add to that (Irrigation, previous cart path work before the grant and $150,000 loan to get them by years ago) how bad of an investment was the building?? Maybe even making the course money! With Continental Manor closing there’s no where to host a catered event in Norwalk. Fast forward the Authority decides to take over the bar area and office space below to bring up the pro shop and offices that have been there and working fine for a half of century !! 50 years! that space takes away from real rent to be made by a restaurateurs.

It’s obvious with the article in the Hour a few days ago blaming the weather for the financially strapped problems at the course and no mention that Zero dollars collected this year from the restaurant vendor how can they payback the taxpayers? they can’t. Next weeks big article on Oak Hills will be about this and what will they blame? the Restaurant Building! as usual.

Joe and his staff are great but when the time comes to figure out a fair rent taking away that space will never bring back the price the Authority was collecting for almost a decade. I think it’s gone on way to long blaming the building. No one can say that the Authority didn’t try but they might have to “eat crow” and move the pro shop and offices back down below. If not then stop blaming the Building and put the blame were it belongs on the Authority and politicians who let it get to this point.

Bill McFarland September 2, 2018 at 11:40 am

These comments are really unbelievable!!! Very few get it, if any…The restaurant building has ABSOLUTELY NOTHING to do with the financial woes of Oak Hills Park.

When the building was built approximately 15 years ago, it generated over $100k rent per year for many years, way more then enough to pay the note on the building portion of the money the OHPA borrowed from the taxpayers of Norwalk. Then the rent was reduced to $60k per year, but the note between the OHPA and the taxpayers was “refinanced” and the $60K still covered the portion of the note associated with the building.

Now they are getting $0 income, because the OHPA and the golfers didn’t like that they couldn’t get a $2 egg sandwich and the operator did too much catering business. “it’s not for the golfers” they said so they pushed out the operator who was paying them a fair rent.

Now the OHPA decides to take over a third of the building for their new “welcome Center”, for what? How stupid can they be? the catering business is the perfect way to get the rent needed to pay back the taxpayers which is now impossible because the OHPA wanted, not needed, a new welcome center.

Until our elected officials finally get that overspending and trying to make Oak Hills into a private country club for the minority of golfers in Norwalk is a mistake and going forward with dumb ideas such as taking a third of a rentable building away making it unrentable, are stopped by the current group in charge, Oak Hills will continue to be a drain on all of us suckers called Norwalk taxpayers.

It’s time to make changes at Oak Hills. Who wants to bet no payement will be paid to that taxpayers?

Alan September 2, 2018 at 11:41 am

The responses to Dr. Cantor do not grapple with his argument. He does not argue that nobody benefits from the current arrangement; in fact, he notes that a few people clearly benefit, including golfers and the occasional diner. But this a just a few of the many people who could with better planning benefit from Oak Hills Park. Dr. Cantor argues that better planning would provide greater benefits to the community as a whole rather than just to a few special interests. This appears to be true. At least, I have yet to see a response in this paper that makes a convincing case that it is not true. And if anyone out there really believes that golfers should be subsidized by the larger community, I would like to hear a public-policy justification for that view.

Roger September 2, 2018 at 12:03 pm

What no one gets is that the building that the restaurant sits in is NOT the building “the golfers” asked for back in the late 90’s. The building was built by the city as they thought it should be and it was handed to the OHPA. At a recent Finance meeting it was stated, and confirmed by Bob Barron, that the OHPA has paid $1.7 million to date on the original $2.275 million note and still have $1.7million left to pay, due to consolidation of debt and restructuring. The building is valued at $1 million. I don’t blame the OHPA is they want to walk away from it. If it were my house I would have abandoned it long ago. Kudos to the OHPA for at least trying to win a losing proposition.

Wineshine September 2, 2018 at 1:43 pm

Paul, you should admit at this point that the whole OHPA issue has become more of a personal vendetta than anything tied to reality. Your assasination of Oak Hills should have died with the driving range going by the boards. It’s old. Really. I’ve played the course enough to see that a) golfers are extemely respectful of their surroundings and b) the residents on the perimeter don’t seem to have any problems with the course. With the behavior I’ve seen repeatedly, I can not imagine any reasonable person having a problem with the situation. I’ll trade homes with you for a day and see how you like two yapping dogs next door going at it all day.

cc-rider September 2, 2018 at 1:45 pm

New flash, every sport is subsidized to varying degrees. How about we go over every other sport or recreational activity that takes place in the city and compare/contrast their actual cost to the maligned public golfers. It is crazy to think that those soccer fields are somehow free….How much is the parks and rec budget these days?

John Levin September 2, 2018 at 2:24 pm

“It’s time to make changes at Oak Hills.” I agree with Bill MacFarland. I would like to offer a suggestion, although I know I may get a lot of flak for sharing this idea, including from my spouse. OHPA should operate the restaurant/bar as a strip club, at least 2 or 3 days a week, and possibly more. I think this would cause many golfers to linger at the club house longer and spend more of their money there. I also think that controversy associated with this concept, if there is to be any, will offer excellent free publicity for Oak Hills Park as both a golf course and public park. Also, I think that a strip club would help to diversify our local economy, even if only marginally. For certain, we DON’T really need another liquor store, check cashing place, gas station, fast food restaurant or retail chain in Norwalk, do we? Also, this offering would allow Oak Hills Golf course to compete more effectively against neighboring facilities, including private golf courses in the area, and likely will attract many golfers, and no-golfers, from other towns.

Strip clubs, if managed well, can be profitable, clean, and yes, reputable entertainment businesses. They can offer diverse entertainment options for a broad segment of our population, including both women and men, straight and gay, or anywhere else on the seemingly increasingly complicated spectrum. Obviously working in or patronizing a strip club is the private business of legal adults who choose to do so on their own – and not of government authorities or moralistic busybodies.

Our family has lived in Norwalk for over 27 years, and I recall there was a time that our town had a strip club. Was it called the Zebra Club? I never visited it (I swear!) but I recall the neighbors complaining about it and the NPD busting it for one infraction or another frequently. Eventually it closed. I don’t believe that any of Norwalk’s neighboring towns has a strip club in it, so it would seem to be an underserved market locally by quite a stretch.

Finally, modifications to the restaurant/bar to serve as a strip club likely are minimal: signage, window coverings. What else? There’s already a dance floor, seating, and a sound system, and plenty of parking. And there are no neighbors nearby to be annoyed by loud music. Have I missed anything?

M.Murray September 2, 2018 at 2:33 pm

And next up… The Saga of Fodor Farm, the Saga of Ryan Park, the Saga of Oyster Park, and the Saga of the Rest of Public Parks that cost more than they bring in.

M. Murray September 2, 2018 at 3:07 pm

I will admit that a dirt bike trail around the perimeter would be nice. It could be used for snowmobiles in the winter

Mike Lyons September 2, 2018 at 10:31 pm

M. Murray, good point. Mr. Cantor’s argument could be used to shut down the city marina at Vets Park, the playgrounds at various parks, city tennis courts, city basketball courts, softball fields, little league fields, in fact. many city parks themselves (all being used by tiny minorities of the city’s residents). Why should Norwalk taxpayers subsidize such uses when a very large majority of those taxpayers never use any of them? In fact, since a majority of the city’s residents have no children in our school system, why not shut it down, too?

I’m not saying no problems have existed at Oak Hills – clearly there have been. As there have been with various other recreation and parks programs over the years. But the heart of Mr. Cantor’s argument seems to be that 91% of Norwalkers don’t play golf, so why have we wasted Oak Hills on golfers? And that argument, applied consistently across other Parks and Rec programs, could justify eliminating most such programs in town.

Maybe its good for a town to have a wide variety of recreational activities, even if each one individually isn’t used by more than a small percentage of its residents. And if that’s the case, why would golfers (I don’t golf, by the way) be excluded, while boaters, swimmers, softball players, soccer players and many others wouldn’t be?

Paul Cantor September 3, 2018 at 12:41 am

Mr. Lyons:

Cost/benefit analysis should be used to determine whether the tennis courts, marina, little league fields or anything else you can think of should be funded by taxpayers. When it is determined that the benefits outweigh the costs from the point of view of taxpayers as a whole they should be funded. When it is determined that the costs outweigh the benefits the government should not fund them.

Ask yourself what is the cost of using the money generated by a building owned by taxpayers to subsidize a golf course? The cost is the highest valued alternative use for that money. The implicit contract the OHPA has with taxpayers is that it will manage the golf course so that user fees will cover its capital and operation costs. That has never been the case.

Instead it has required millions of dollars of subsidies from taxpayers to survive. And you almost have to smile and shake your head at the ineptitude of the OHPA throughout the years. The people appointed to the OHPA like to play golf but they have no experience or expertise in running a restaurant or a golf course.

So now after moving the pro shop into the restaurant building will the OHPA blame whoever leases the reduced space for a lack of willingness to cover a lease high enough to service the Authority’s million-dollar debt to taxpayers?

Bottom line: the cost of the golf course is high and the benefits low. The cost of a public park such as Wavenly in New Canaan is far lower and the benefits far greater. Indeed, if there is anything Norwalk lacks it is a decent public park on the order of Wavenly near the heart of the city.

Such a park would add more to property values in Norwalk than a money losing golf course. However, the Norwalk taxpayer subsidized golf course does contribute to property values in New Canaan and Wilton.

Now ask yourself: how much land does a tennis court take up? How much land the marina? Little league fields? What is the cost to taxpayers to maintain them? Can little league fields be used for other activities? Do they require large amounts of water and harmful chemicals to maintain?

Cost benefit analysis calls for careful thinking. Ideally, our elected officials would understand that and understand too that they have been elected to promote the welfare of all taxpayers not any particular special interest group. Then, hopefully, they would act in all of our interests. But the only way to ensure that will happen is for all of us to make our voices heard through the ballot box.

Note: As for your question: since a majority of the city’s residents have no children in our school system, why not shut it down, too? That glib attempt at an analogy coming from the chairman of the Board of Education is shocking. Fortunately, most people are aware of the enormous benefits everyone receives when children are well educated.

Paul Persius September 3, 2018 at 5:51 am

There seems to be a major point some are missing. If I decide to have a picnic at Cranbury park, with my family, on a blanket in the middle of the great lawn, I can do that. Can I lay a blanket on the 6th fairway and do the same?? I dont think so. If I want to hit a softball with my daughter at Fitch Park for free, I can do that. Can I just go hit some balls for free with my son on the 1st hole? Nope. Therein lies the difference. Whether I choose to use the City parks or not, they are there and maintained for ALL to enjoy at no cost. The same cannot be said for the course.

cc-rider September 3, 2018 at 6:11 am

Paul gets riled up M Lyons comments on the school system being “glib” meanwhile the first paragraph of this very article is condescending and totally ignorant of the cost of playing golf at local private country clubs. In his perverted world, every golfer should man up to pay the 50-100k to join a local club and stop ruining his view of Oak Hills.

Rem September 3, 2018 at 8:48 am

Waveney and Cranberry were both former estates gifted to their respective communities; formerly private use converted to public consumption. Oak Hills has always rather been semi-public with the only other comparable piece of land in West Norwalk being private with a public easement that has changed ownership recently to the “Let’s Use a Native American name from another part of the country Facility” which is also available to be rented for weddings and events.

I’m not going to add my two cents about whether Oak Hills should stay or go, but I have been to the previous restaurant which had unremarkable food, and I did walk in the park, albeit on the edges and in winter because I saw a movie years ago about someone getting killed by a golf ball to the head, and while incredibly rare to happen, that has stayed with me all these years. If there is one thing they could do, it would be to bury those high voltage transmission lines which are there to remind you it’s a municipal park. Which I also heard years ago cause cancer and so, stay away from them.

One final note about private golf clubs (country clubs). There used to be waiting lists of up to 10 years to get into one 30 years ago, now, no waiting list. Why is this? Could it be that people don’t really want to golf anymore? The fact of the matter is – and Oak Hills has nothing to do with this – membership is down at these establishments.

Stan Young September 3, 2018 at 10:10 am

@ Rem

Well said I think the Authority has been leading the finance dept, town council
and Mayor that when the state grant of 1.5 million for course improvements is completed it would bring in more players but unfortunately this has not and will not be the case. Golf has been in a decline for over a decade. Spending money they did not have on fancy equipment , GPS carts , golf boards , pay raises has finally caught up with them. The financial picture up there is bleak at best. Now is the time for the Authority,Town Council, fiance people and Mayor to protect the taxpayers and look for the course on cutting back expenses.

Ernie DesRochers September 3, 2018 at 12:40 pm

@ Paul Cantor – I for one appreciate the way you use Saul Alinsky’s rules for radicals so effectively. From what I can tell you have used them all since you began your quest against Oak Hills and the OHPA over 20 years ago (Has it really been that long?) I might suggest that you might want to abide by rule No. 7 – “A tactic that drags on too long becomes a drag.”

Bill McFarland September 3, 2018 at 4:57 pm

The Oak Hills Park Authority owes the taxpayers of Norwalk (AKA the suckers who keep lending them funds) $211,000 tomorrow. Will it be paid?

Bill McFarland September 3, 2018 at 5:29 pm

Why doesn’t the City of Norwalk make every department an Authority? Then each department could make their own budget, spend as much as they want, answer to nobody and when they run out of money just come back to the Board of Finance, Board of estimate and the Common Council with their hand out to replenish their bank accounts.

It’s working great for the Oak Hills Park Authority…

Tysen Canevari September 3, 2018 at 8:06 pm

{…} in regards to the golf course he stays on the same topic for far to long. Taylor farm is a great park for you as well as Cranbury. Pick one and enjoy the walking trails. Its a golf course for people to play golf. The city in general wastes millions of dollars. Will the few bucks the authority owes make a difference? I doubt it.

Edited to remove personal criticisms of the writer which are also off-topic. The comments policy states: “Do not insult, bully, threaten or harass the writers or your fellow commenters.” The policy also bars trolling. https://www.nancyonnorwalk.com/comment-guidelines/

M.Murray September 4, 2018 at 6:47 am

Would Mr. Cantor support Oak Hills being used as a youth center with a facility to keep youth off the streets with night basketball, concerts, and events to keep them occupied in the evenings when they are looking for something to do? A dirt bike track and snowmobiles around the perimeter, since there is no place in Norwalk for kids to do that?

U.S. Blues September 4, 2018 at 7:36 am

If oak hills is being subsidized then I would rather subsidize a bunch of golfers who definitely pay into the system then for parks in SoNo for people who definitely don’t pay into the system.

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