NORWALK, Conn. — Assurances of objectivity were made Thursday by a consultant hired to determine if a driving range at Oak Hills Park would give Norwalk a good return on its investment.
“There’s a segment of taxpayers in Norwalk who want to know how objective are you going to be?” Oak Hills Park Authority member Elsa Peterson Obuchowski said to National Golf Foundation Senior Director of Consulting Richard Singer at Thursday’s OHPA meeting. “Is your goal to tell us what we want to hear? Or is your goal to do a really green eyeshade tough assessment of whether this is a good investment or not?”
Definitely the latter, Singer said.
“Telling people what they want to hear or doing it doesn’t benefit anybody,” Singer said. “We have no horse in the race on this. We don’t design, build, operate, finance or have any interest in any side businesses on golf courses. We are strictly a research and consulting organization for the golf industry. For golf courses to make bad investments doesn’t help anybody and it certainly doesn’t help the golf industry, so there is no interest to do that.”
Singer has been in town for two days, NGF having been selected by the Authority in late September to do the analysis at a cost of $21,000, he said. While the Authority is footing the bill, it’s the city’s study and will be delivered directly to Finance Director Bob Barron, Barron said.
The analysis is expected to be done by mid-November, Singer said. That, according to Barron, provides the information just in the nick of time as a capital budget request can be prepared just ahead of the deadline if the analysis shows that a $3.2 million driving range would, in fact, pay for itself.
Singer said he had done preliminary market research before getting here, and has spent a full day at Oak Hills, including a few hours touring the course with golf architect Robert McNeil, who was hired to design renovations to the course that will be paid for with state grant money.
He has looked at the park location that OHPA has selected for a potential driving range, he said.
“We are going to have to look at it a lot closer because it’s small,” Singer said. “Things are going to have to be moved around in order to make it work, but I am not exactly sure how that would be yet, or how it would fit in yet. That’s a key part of this process, reviewing the site. The site analysis is definitely a big part of this.
He also has visited Sterling Farms driving range in Stamford and Smith Richardson driving range in Fairfield, he said.
Not included in the plan is talking to golfers at Oak Hills, he said. OHPA has done surveys and he will review that information, he said.
This is “a financial exercise more than anything else,” and the numbers will tell the story, Singer said.
“These kinds of jobs, they tend to fall into thirds,” Singer said. “About a third of the time we say it doesn’t look good, it doesn’t make sense. About a third of the time we say this looks like a home run. Then there’s another third where it falls somewhere in the middle, where you may have to make some adjustments to your plan in order to make it work. Maybe the plan as you proposed it isn’t going to work but there’s another plan that could work, with some adjustment. That could be an answer. I don’t know that yet, but it’s possible.”
OHPA Ad Hoc Driving Range Committee Chairman Clyde Mount said that was one of the reasons why NGF had been selected.
“They were very clear that they have rejected and they have revised and they have approved and they have lots of examples of all of that,” Mount said.
“It’s a ‘no holds barred, tell us what you think,’” OHPA Chairman Clyde Mount said. “… There is no pride of authorship at all in regard to this. This is something that has probably been going on for 30 years at least. Having someone who can objectively tell us what we should do I think is very important.”
“If they say don’t build it, we don’t build it,” Mount said.
A person attending the meeting asked what would happen if Singer came back and said the driving range should be located behind the restaurant, in the woods that some Norwalkers fiercely protect.
Singer said that wasn’t his charge.
“We couldn’t do it now anyway because part of the conditions of the state grant and the money is the nature center,” DesRochers said. “So if we don’t do that we would have to give the money back. I don’t think that’s a smart thing to do.”
Singer said he has spent 25 years visiting municipal golf courses.
“There’s a lot of what I see at Oak Hills that you have very much in common with just about every other public sector golf course in the country. Couple of unique pieces, which is common,” Singer said. “The one thing that I am always on my soapbox about saying, and I’ll say to the city and I’ll say to you, same thing, you can’t cut your way to success in public golf. You can’t stand still in public golf, you have to keep improving and upgrading and keeping up with what is going on in the world and making your facility relevant and that people want to be there. You can’t just sit on it since 1969 and not put income into it and expect there to be a success.”