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Letter: A scandal in the making

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To the editor:

Next Friday, Connecticut’s Bond Commission is going to consider making a $1,500,000 loan that is unlikely to ever be paid back for the construction of a large commercial driving range in Norwalk’s Oak Hills Park.

The loan would be made to the Oak Hills Park Authority (OHPA), an autonomous body set up to manage an 18-hole golf course in the park.

“A driving range is needed so the golf course will survive,” said Robert Virgulak, the former chairman of the Authority. “Without that additional revenue, there’s no way. We need another source of revenue and the only one that makes sense is a driving range.”

The problem the OHPA faces is that, due to the decrease in the demand to play 18 holes of golf and its own mismanagement, user fees no longer cover the cost of operating and maintaining the golf course. Hence, the OHPA is now struggling to repay millions of dollars of restructured taxpayer subsidized loans it received years ago. In other words, if the OHPA were a private enterprise it would be bankrupt. Still, if it gets its way, it soon may be adding a money-losing driving range to its money-losing golf course.

“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 Norwalk Hourwrote in 1999 when the idea for a driving range first surfaced and then was abandoned. “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.”

Nevertheless, in 2012, because of the financial problems faced by golf course in Oak Hills Park, the plan surfaced again. But rather than being financed by a subsidized loan from taxpayers as, previously proposed, this time the OHPA authority claimed the driving range would be financed by the firm that constructed it. As it turned out, however, only two firms responded to the request for proposals to build the driving range, and Total Driving Range Solutions, the one the Authority selected couldn’t obtain financing for it.

So now, the OHPA is seeking a taxpayer-subsidized loan for a driving range that, even if it would earn money, is fiercely opposed by residents of Norwalk because, among other things, it would further limit access to the park by people who do not play golf and the noise, lights, large ugly nets and traffic associated with it would undermine the residential quality of the neighborhood in which the park is situated.

In sum, at a time when there are so many other urgent priorities for a state with a budget deficit and one of the highest debt per capita ratios in the country, Connecticut should not be considering loaning $1,500,000 for the construction of a large commercial driving range that will serve the interest of a minority of relatively well-off, mostly male golfers at the expense of all the rest of the citizens of the state. And the fact that it is doing so before the citizens of Norwalk have properly vetted its plans is a scandal in the making.

Paul Cantor

Comments

13 responses to “Letter: A scandal in the making”

  1. One and Done

    We get it. You hate the golf course. Enjoy your mosque.

  2. Paul Cantor

    No, One and Done, I don’t hate the golf course. In fact I quite like it and you might note when Vinny Grillo senior and Vinny Grillo Jr. were in charge of the course and it was covering its costs no voices where raised against it. The Grillos were a class act. But now they are gone and user fees no longer cover the cost of operating and maintaining 18-hole facility due largely to the well documented decrease in the demand to play 18-holes of golf. Hence, Fred Wilms, the Chairman of the Board of Estimate and Taxation wrote in a letter in The Hour, “The Oak Hills Park Authority needs additional revenues to stay alive.” And Rober Virgulak, former chair of the OHPA said: “A driving range is needed so the golf course will survive. Without that additional revenue, there’s no way. We need another source of revenue and the only one that makes sense is a driving range.” Personal attacks such as yours avoid addressing that issue. Again, I don’t hate the golf course and I don’t hate golfers. My father played golf. My grandfather played golf. Many of my friends play golf. But I should not have to point that out. I understand that you and other golfers want the golf course. The problem is that user fees don’t cover its cost. And what do you mean by “enjoy your mosque”? The key argument people made against the Mosque on Fillow Street was that it would generate an excessive amount of traffic. A driving range if it is to be successful would lead to still more traffic. And when the idea was first proposed a traffic study was undertaken that indicated as much. What about the unsupported assumption that the driving range will be profitable and hence help alleviate the Oak Hills financial problems? As the Hour indicated in a 1999 editorial a driving range in Oak Hills, given its location off the beaten track, is unlikely to be profitable. But if it was likely to be profitable the OHPA would not need a subsidized loan from taxpayers to construct it. Rather it would be able to obtain a loan from the private sector.

  3. West Norwalk Observer

    If I’m not mistaken, the state is not lending Oak Hills $1.5M, it is giving Oak Hills $1.5M – a gift from all of the taxpayers of Connecticut – which I’m totally fine with especially since the state underfunds our ECS allocation so drastically.

  4. Very Concerned

    The City of Norwalk needs to get its priorities in order.

    If the minority groups want an expanded golf course, they should build one in their own backyard.

    Why should Norwalk residents have to pay a 20% increase on property tax to support the golf course?

    Why isn’t Norwalk requesting funding where it is needed most? For example, why not fund and rebuild the Norwalk YMCA? Doesn’t Norwalk care about the growth of its children, their well being, and the future of Norwalk?

  5. Dave McCarthy

    This is indeed a grant which will enable the nature trails and many other activities to move forward, it is a great thing for Oak Hills and Norwalk.

  6. Dave McCarthy

    Oh, and, as usual, the City of Norwalk will not be spending any money on Oak Hills and not one dollar will be funded through property taxes. The Authority is a self-sustaining entity that occasionally uses the city as a source of loans, which they are expected to pay back, with interest.

  7. Chevy Vega

    Thank you Dave McCarthy for your information regarding the Oak Hills Park situation.
    I’m amazed that anyone from anywhere would vote for you for anything.

  8. Paul Cantor

    Mr. McCarthy is wrong when he says the OHPA is a self sustaining entity. And Very Concerned is spot on when s/he says the city needs to get its priorities straight. The OHPA operates an 18-hole golf course on land gifted to it tax-free by the taxpayers of Norwalk. That is a taxpayer subsidy. Furthermore, taxpayers have provided it with millions of dollars of subsidized loans that had to be restructured when the OHPA couldn’t meet their terms. That is an additional subsidy. In short, because user fees do not cover the cost of maintaining and operating the golf course every, round of golf is paid for in part by taxpayers. Furthermore it is precisely because due to the well-documented decrease in the demand to play 18 holes of golf the OHPA is no longer a self-sustaining entity that the Authority claims an outside source of revenue is needed if the golf course is to survive. Hence, it hopes that a large commercial driving will be the source of that revenue. But in order to turn the OHPA into a financially self-sustaining entity the driving range would not only have to cover its own construction, operation, and maintenance costs but in addition the difference between the user fees generated from golfers playing the 18-hole golf course and the cost of operating and maintaining the course. How likely is it that it will be able to do that given it will be located off the beaten track?

  9. Charles Brennan

    Mr. Cantor you only seem to quote The Hour when they support your point of view. Oak Hills is no more off the beaten path then Sterling Farms and their range is packed with people from Norwalk. The course is paying their bills and is self supporting. I think you stated at one of the authority meetings you were happy they were meeting their obligations. If you have friends that play golf they must be in the well off portion of the population that you talk about. The course has a very diverse population using it maybe you should go look at it instead of making another one of your assumptions.

  10. Mr. Ludlow

    Why are we blaming a common councilor for a grant awarded by the state? If the public outcry is as great as some here suggest, email the Mayor and the Common Council to nominate people for the Oak Hills Authority who think that slices belong in a bakery and tees are drinks with jam and bread.

  11. Don’t Panic

    Mr. McCarthy says ” The Authority is a self-sustaining entity ” while multiple current and former authority members say otherwise. Mr. McCarthy should go back and check how many years going back to 1998 the OHPA was allowed to defer rent payments (which are really just payments on the loan. Then he should check at what point they stopped funding their capital fund and their escrow fund. He should check how many times the City has supplied unreimbursed assistance to help get their records in order.
    .
    At last check the bonds the City issued for improvements to the park (which included the driving range)are still not fully paid.
    .
    The Authority is SUPPOSED to be self-sustaining. That was the whole purpose of setting up an Authority to run it, but it is not working as it is meant to.
    .
    My suggestion would be for the state to take this money and pour it into improving the schools, the roads or the railroads.
    .
    Failing that, maybe OHPA should consider putting in a field that could be illuminated at night for all of Norwalk’s student sports teams that need to practice at night.

  12. Very Concerned

    The taxpayers of Norwalk have no obligation to continue to subsidize the golf course at the present time and in the future.

    Any priorities to keep the golf course running are at the bottom of the list. An organization like NEON is at the top of the list.

    Be thankful you have a golf course that is presently subsidized by the City of Norwalk taxpayers and call it a day.

  13. sofaman

    As a golfer, and someone fond of Oak Hills, my thought is: reality must be faced. This is not about who does or doesn’t like golf, or where the money “could” be spent. Taxpayers should never ever be forced into supporting a business that benefits just a small percent of the community andloses money. This land does not function as a public park, you must pay to play.

    Golf rounds are down everywhere. I’d hate to see Oak Hills go away, but expansion is obviously not the answer.

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