By Paul Cantor
NORWALK, Conn. – The Oak Hills Park Authority (OHPA) is driving a hard bargain with its driving range proposal.
Give us a driving range and you may get some of the $3 million plus dollars you loaned us back. Don’t and you won’t.
Other forms of this hard either/or bargain being offered to the taxpayers of Norwalk by the OHPA are: Give us the driving range or you can kiss the park goodbye. Give us the driving range or the golf course is toast. Give us the driving range or the city will sell the park to developers. Give us the driving range or instead of beautifully landscaped open space you’ll end up with McMansions or maybe even a massive mosque.
Taxpayers would never allow the city to sell the park to developers. And the driving range is more likely to add to the OHPA’s financial problems than solve them. How so?
The OHPA does not have the money to construct the driving range itself. So it is seeking a private developer to build and operate it. On top of bearing the cost of constructing the driving range the private developer will be expected to lease the land for the driving range from the OHPA and to provide the OHPA with a share of its gross revenues.
What is the minimum amount the OHPA will accept for the lease of its land? It doesn’t say. What is the minimum percentage of the driving range’s gross receipts it is willing to accept? It doesn’t say. What is the projected revenue the OHPA expects the driving range will take in? It doesn’t say. How many additional rounds of golf does the OHPA expect the driving range will generate? It doesn’t say. How much revenue does the OHPA think it will need to obtain from the driving range in order to cover the golf course’s operating expenses? It doesn’t say
Instead it maintains that since the private entrepreneur selected to construct and operate the driving range will be required to put up a performance bond to guarantee the project will be completed none of these questions matter. But what if the developer, as is likely, severely underestimates the cost of the project and backs out halfway through it? Then taxpayers will have to put up additional funds to see it through to completion or, alternatively, to restore the land to its original condition. What the OHPA is offering taxpayers, in other words, is a heads we win tails you loose proposition.
No one should be surprised, therefore, that golfers who would like a driving range in Oak Hills so they do not have to travel 10 or 20 minutes to practice their swing at Sterling Farms or a competing facility will claim that it is the answer to the OHPA’s financial problems. But even if they could support their claim with reasonable projections of the income the OHPA might expect to realize from the project (and so far neither they nor the OHPA has made any serious attempt to do so) there are many other considerations that should be taken into account before it can be determined whether the benefit of a driving range in Oak Hills Park would outweigh its costs.
What, for instance, will be the effect of the driving range on the residential quality of the neighborhood in which it is located? How will it affect the accessibility of the park to people who do not play golf? What will be its environmental impact? Can the golf course cover its operating costs without an outside source of income?
These and related issues will be addressed by the Friends of Oak Hills Park in future op-ed pieces.
Paul Cantor, a Norwalk resident, is a member of the Friends of Oak Hills Park.