The Oak Hills Park Authority (OHPA) recently issued a “Master Plan” that calls for four million dollars in additional loans from taxpayers in order to upgrade the course and construct a large commercial driving range that it claims will solve its financial problems.
The OHPA was established to manage a golf course in Oak Hills Park so that the user fees paid by golfers would more than cover its operating and capital costs. The additional funds would then be used to maintain other areas of the park for non-golfers. But, due to the well-documented decrease in the demand to play 18 holes of golf, user fees no longer cover the costs of the golf course.
Hence, from the point of view of taxpayers, the golf course should be reduced in size or eliminated and the land freed up as a result devoted to other activities appropriate for a public park. But because the OHPA is composed of individuals who prioritize the interests of golfers over the interest of the public at large it is not willing to consider those alternatives.
Instead it has become a rogue elephant calling for more and more taxpayer loans to support an activity enjoyed by just10 percent of the population. But don’t blame the elephant for behaving true to its nature. Blame the politicians who pander to it.
Hopefully, however, the new, badly flawed document that the Authority calls a Master Plan will be the straw that finally puts an end to such pandering and leads to Oak Hills Park being placed in the hands of the Recreation and Parks Department so it can be managed in the interested of all taxpayers.
In its new Master Plan the Authority begins by recognizing that there has been a dramatic drop in the demand for golf in recent years and hence in the number of rounds being played at Oak Hills. And it sees that as an indication that “a more aggressive approach to marketing and management” is needed.
But the golf course was established to meet a need not create one. Hence, by acknowledging that the 18-hole golf course cannot become financially sustainable on its own, the OHPA is admitting that need no longer exists. Simply put, there is no longer enough demand within Norwalk to sustain an 18-hole golf course.
However, rather than responding appropriately to that reality, the OHPA is seeking to generate additional demand from golfers in surrounding communities. That response, in the unlikely event that it is successful, may serve the interests of the minority of taxpayers in Norwalk who play golf. But, as the authors of a letter in The Hour noted some time ago, it decidedly will not serve the interest of the majority.
A golf course, wrote Yvonne Lopaur and Roger Sparks, “provides value to a small segment of the community. Furthermore, we can measure this value by the revenues the golf course generates. These revenues show what people are willing to pay for golfing. If we take those revenues and subtract the costs of operating the golf course, we get a measure of the net benefit (or net value) of the golf course to the community (excluding any externalities). If the net benefit turns out to be negative, then we would need to have a very compelling reason to use public land as a golf course. We would need to be convinced that the rights of golfers supersede the rights of non-golfers to such an extent that a subsidy should go from the latter to the former.”
With that in mind taxpayers should ask what is the compelling reason to use the land in Oak Hills Park for an 18-hole golf course? The golf course is not only not covering its costs as originally intended it is likely to end up costing (in unpaid loans) taxpayers more money than a park without the golf course would cost them. And a multiuse park in the heart of the city is sorely needed and would benefit all taxpayers not just the minority that play golf.
The OHPA still owes taxpayers more than $2 million on loans it has had to restructure and is now unlikely to ever pay back in full. Nevertheless, its Master Plan calls for $900,000 to upgrade all 18 holes on the golf course. But if demand for the golf course was not sufficient to generate the money needed to upgrade those holes in the past, what makes the Authority think that it will be sufficient to upgrade them in the future (especially when it is burdened with servicing millions more in loans)?
Even more egregious than the request for loans to cover the average $50,000 per hole upgrades to the course, however, is the OHPA’s request for financing to construct a driving range. Last year the OHPA put out a request for proposals, or RFP, to build a driving range. The request required bidders to indicate how they would finance construction of the driving range, how much rent they would pay the OHPA for the land on which it would be situated, and what percentage of the driving range’s gross revenues it would share with the OHPA. But nowhere in its Master Plan that claims it will realize a large amount of income from the driving range is there any indication of whether the bidder it selected to build the range, Total Driving Range Solutions (TDRS), will pay it a penny. Nor is there any indication that TDRS will in any way help finance construction of the driving range. One might question, therefore, exactly what role the OHPA now expects TDRS to play in financing and operating the driving range.
In short, the OHPA latest Master Plan is so badly conceived and poorly presented that it should convince the mayor and Common Council to put an end to the Authority and its disastrous “damn the torpedoes, full speed” inept approach to salvaging its money-losing golf course. Only if the OHPA is dissolved and the park is put in the hands of Recreation and Parks can taxpayers be confident that it will be managed in the interests of all the stakeholders of our city. Then, perhaps in deference to the desires of golfers, Recreation and Parks will reduce the size of the course to nine holes. Or perhaps it will eliminate it altogether.
But either way, taxpayers as a whole will benefit. And serious golfers will still have a wide variety of nearby daily fee golf courses where they can play the game they favor above all others.