An Open Letter to Norwalk’s Planning Commission: P & Z Director Mike Greene, Chairman Torgny Astrom, David Davidson, Frances VC Dimeglio, William Dunne, Steve Ferguson, George McGuire, Nancy McGuire, Walter Mclaughlin, Joel Zaremby
Re: The Oak Hills Park Authority’s request for a $3,000,000 loan to construct a driving range in Oak Hills Park.
Dear Mr. Greene and Members of the Planning Commission:
It is our hope that you will reject the OHPA’s request for a $3 million dollar loan to construct a driving range in Oak Hills Park for the following reasons:
1. The National Golf Foundation (NGF) study the Authority paid for makes it clear that it is highly unlikely that the proposed driving range will generate enough revenue to cover the cost of its construction. Even in the best of circumstances, it concludes, taxpayers “will find that the net income available to cover annual debt service will be within 15 percent +/– of the annual debt service.” In other words, there is a risk that revenues will fall 15 percent short of what would be required to pay back the $3 million taxpayer subsidized loan used to construct the driving range. Or as the study puts it, if the driving range is built, “the City’s economic interest in the facility will continue to be at risk and could be affected by uncontrollable factors such as road construction, economic changes and weather.”
2. The OHPA could not obtain a loan from the private sector to construct the proposed driving range because no private sector lender thinks a driving range in Oak Hills Park would generate the revenue needed to pay off the cost of constructing it. That is the reason it is coming to the city for a loan to construct it.
3. The NGF study makes it clear that the only way the driving range would stand a chance to cover its costs would be if it operated late into the night every day of the year. “The lighting for night use is viewed as critical,” it points out. But operating the driving range at night with or without lights would undermine the residential quality of the AAA zoned neighborhood in which Oak Hills Park is situated. Therefore, the OHPA previously promised it would not operate the driving range past dusk.
4. The NGF study points out “the specific location” of the proposed driving range “is not ideal because it is not conveniently located near, and visible from, major roadways” and proximity and visibility from the road “are two key factors in the historical success of commercial public driving ranges.” Furthermore, according to the study “the roadway infrastructure” is “less-than-ideal for the operation of a commercial driving range” because “access to the facility is via Fillow Street, which is a minor roadway (one lane each direction) in the area handling a relatively high volume of traffic. Fillow St does not connect directly to either I-95 or Highway 7, requiring golfers to make several turns to get to Fillow St and the OHGC.” Indeed, as The Hour put it in 1999 after the idea of constructing a driving range in Oak Hills Park came up and was then dropped: “The decision of the Oak Hills Authority to drop plans for a driving range in Norwalk’s Oak Hills Park, is a wise one…The location of the golf course off the beaten path, and the narrow road network around it all argued against it. Add to that the need for additional parking space and the plan made no sense at all.”
5. As former Norwalk Mayor Alex Knopp pointed out in 2002, it is doubtful that “a revenue-producing commercial driving range” in Oak Hills Park can be financially justified.
6. Tad King, the owner of one of the only two firms that responded to a request for proposals to construct the driving range, pointed out: “The proposed location, in the area of the first hole and the sixth tee, is too narrow. … I’ve been in the business long enough, I know you can’t make money there. … The only guys who are going to use it are the ones who are warming up. … You’ll get some stragglers but it’s not going to be a destination thing. People are not going out of their way to come here.”
7. As the NGF study indicates the cost to construct the driving range is likely to exceed $3,000,000 but even if it is kept to $3,000,000 that “amount is much higher than the $1.0 to $1.5 million to complete a driving range addition that NGF usually find to be economically sustainable.”
8. The NGF study points out, “the site selected for the proposed addition poses some challenges … due to size, topography and rock/soil issues.” And again, the site’s “uneven topography and significant rock outcroppings … will make the construction of a new driving range more expensive.” As a result the cost of constructing the driving range would likely exceed $3 million.
9. Also tending to push the cost of constructing the driving range above $3 million according to the NGF study would be the fact that for safety reasons it would “have to be fully enclosed with 100-foot netting.” Specifically, because the driving range would be a potential hazard “to the surrounding elements of the golf course … full perimeter netting with 100 feet of height will be required.”
10. Because the driving range “will not be level and will have some remaining rock outcroppings” the expense of covering those outcroppings with “some type” of netting to keep balls from being damaged will add to its costs.
11. Because the golf course in Oak Hills Park’s slope rating is higher than the standard slope rating it is harder to play than other courses and this, according to the NGF “may have impact on the potential demand” for the driving range and hence is one more reason to question the likelihood that it will ever be able to cover its costs.
12. Because the driving range will interfere with play on the course it is likely to lead to fewer rounds being played and therefore less revenue being generated from golfers. As the NGF study put it: “some existing elements of the golf course will have to be re-located and the resulting desirability of golf is uncertain.” Nevertheless, “a portion of the range structure will likely be ‘in play’ to some degree on the first hole of the golf course.
13. The process of constructing the driving range will interfere with play on the course. Consequently rounds played and revenue received from rounds played will fall in tandem compromising the OHPA’s ability to service the millions of dollars in loans it has already been granted by taxpayers and that have had to be restructured numerous times
14. Past loans to the OHPA have had to be restructured. As news reports have pointed out, for instance, Director of Management and Budgets Robert O. Barron said “two such restructurings have removed $542,000 of debt service from the authority and reduced the annual repayment from $294,000 to $161,000.” Still the Authority is asking that the money it owes taxpayer for the $2,200,000 it borrowed to build the restaurant building be forgiven. Hence, given that a $3 million loan to the Authority is as likely to have to be restructured or forgiven (i.e. turned into a gift) as past loans it received, it would be unconscionable for city officials to agree to it. Clearly there are better uses for taxpayers’ dollars than to spend them to build a driving range that neither the private sector nor the NGF think will be able to pay back the cost of its construction.
15. As the NGF study makes clear there isn’t enough space in Oak Hills Park to accommodate parking for a restaurant, driving range, and 18-hole golf course. Hence, construction of the driving range would have a negative impact on the restaurant and, consequently, the income the OHPA receives from leasing the restaurant building.
16. Competition from the more conveniently located Sterling Farms driving range in Stamford would limit the ability of a driving range in Oak Hills Park to generate revenue.
In short a driving range in Oak Hills Park is highly unlikely to generate the revenue needed to cover its costs. Hence, construction of the proposed driving range would likely add to the OHPA’s financial problems rather alleviate them.
Therefore, we respectfully ask you to turn down the OHPA’s request for a $3,000,000 loan to construct the driving range.
Paul Cantor, Diane Cece, Kevin DiMauro, Peggy Holton, Scott Kimmich, Yvonne Lopaur, Suzanne Ste. Therese, Kate Tepper, George Wolfe, Betsy Wrenn, Bill Wrenn