Letter: Don’t blame the elephant

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.


18 responses to “Letter: Don’t blame the elephant”

  1. Anonymous

    Well stated, Paul. The idea of putting more already stressed-out City taxpayer money into this is a complete folly. It is time to put this beautiful spot to work as a jewel available to the entire community.

  2. cc-rider

    I would not argue the driving range plan is a good one. However, the solution to reduce holes is equally ill conceived and a bigger crap shoot. If you read all of Cantor’s rants on the subject, you would think that golf courses everywhere are reducing the number of holes- which is not happening. You wouldn’t amputate a leg because it has a bruise. Wouldn’t it be a lot easier to work on improving the existing operation to generate more revenue? Vinny Grillo operated the course in the black for many years. The selection of public access courses in this area is terrible. I find it inconceivable that a decently maintained course around here could not make money.

  3. Francis

    Why does Norwalk need three golf courses anyway? Westport, a much larger market for golfers has two, Stamford has two, Darien, also with a much higher golf following has only one course. Maybe these guys at oak hill think the Muslims will be coming in masses with their Dinners Club cards tucked in thier Gucci golf bags to play 18 holes, after prayers, three times a day, if the Mosque moves around the corner. Can see it now, cant you? Yeah, me neither. These golfers may be sipping a bit too much out of the ole flask out there on the greens, These boys need a reality check. Dissolving the organization entirely and reverting it back to public space is a refreshing and sensible path forward. There is no park on the west side besides Flax, which is really in SoNo more than West Norwalk. Than there Vets in East Norwalk/SoNo, which is more a sports venue and marine facility. Taylor, at Shady Beach, is really just a field and Fodor which is not really a park at all, as is Lockwood also. The city’s jewel, besides the beach, is Gallahers/Cranbury. City wide, Norwalk is lacking public park space, this is well known and has been brought up repeatedly over the decades. Can envision hiking – running – biking trails with exercise stops, an obstacle course, frisbee traps, pick nick tables, a children’s park, couple of hoops, volley ball and badmitten nets, dog park maybe even some type of pavilion for entertainment programs and weddings etc. Maybe a small pond, for ice skating, maybe with a fountain, how about space for school botany and agricultural projects. How about putting in a little hill for sledding? Location has allot of possibilities. Forcing the public to pay again and again for a supposed, for profit, or at least a break even entity that caters to an extreme minority, well, if one didn’t know better one would think the mob is raiding the city kitty. Cant get Wall street or 95/7 off the ground, cant fund youth programs but there is millions for golfers? Are we missing something here? Is the PGA coming to town? Absolutely agree, that, that public land can be better utilized for the public, all the public by repurposing the property. If the authority was dissolved and control and operations returned to the city, a vendor could still bid to operate under a lease with the city for the facility itself, which has been done successfully, in other communities. It’s not working and its time for a new approach altogether, expansion of a golf venue with the market already saturated, is, well, just not well thought out and not forward thinking, is it? Cutting losses and adapting, by fulfilling a true need, for the many, not an exoensive want by the very few, such as saving and expanding sorely needed public park space, well, its just common sense, right? Or is common sense not part of the equation? Is corruption of the entire process the primary motivation for such nonsensical expensive adventures? More money down the rabbit hole and in someones bank account on an island somewhere? And the selling narrative is what again? A golf school for the under privileged kids in SoNo. Really? Really? Some guys have no shame at all. No sense of community, its all me myself and I. Whats the name of that movie, with the spoiled children that always get what they want and when they don’t get what they want they throw tantrums till they do get what they want and they usually do?

  4. David

    cc-rider: You’re 100% correct. Paul Cantor has a form of “9-hole-golf” Tourette’s. Recent financial news from Oak Hills golf proves that there is strong demand for a strong product and the lack of 9-hole courses in the area prove that is a weak product, with no demand. But there’s no point in arguing it, there’s no momentum for this “solution”, even the WNA’s own poll of its residents showed overwhelming support for a driving range at Oak hills.

  5. EveT

    If I’m not mistaken, Mr. Cantor is an economist. If he has examined the master plan draft and with his expertise he can’t see where it explains the revenue sharing arrangement or any other financial commitments to Total Driving Range Solutions, then I have to think the information is not there. If that’s the case, then how are taxpayers, Common Council members, etc. supposed to find out what the driving range will actually cost?

  6. EastNorwalkChick

    EveT, it’s because they don’t want us to know what it costs, it seems to be all smoke and mirrors with them….

  7. Suzanne

    A lack of transparency by the OHPA has been the norm and this Master Plan process is no exception. David, I don’t know what “strong demand” you are talking about. The overwinter in-the- black funds amounted to a bare amount more than last year which had the OHPA at the begging bowl of Norwalk asking for more money. In addition, the WNA’s “survey” has already been shown to have been less than representative of all of West Norwalk with only 154 households represented. Hardly “overwhelming support.” If you don’t know, most people do: you can’t cure financial problems by throwing more money at them. The OHPA owes a fair amount of money to the City of Norwalk, which functions through taxpayer dollars. Adding more debt to already overwhelmed coffers when the OHPA has shown they cannot handle the debt they already have is pure financial foolishness. When the OHPA can cover the basics, that is, pay off their debt and run the course to charter, that is, from fees paid by golfers and be self-supporting, maybe then they can look at a financial plan which, from fees, would allow them to pay, on a regular basis at fair market rates, back the funds they already owe. Only then does a Master Plan make sense and only then should any Master Plan be allowed to stand IF it has gone through the proper process by which all Master Plans are created, this one has not, and proper vetting procedures are followed. Again, this one has not. While I love golf, golfing and the sport all ’round, I have to look at, fairly, what the OHPA is asking for. This is a big ask without the requisite responsibility to the existing debt or to taxpayers. Are golfers in Norwalk saying they don’t have enough with this existing beautiful course? That they cannot play it? That they won’t? Where are the rounds necessary to keep the course as it exists now afloat? More amenities, more money, will not cure the ills of the OHPA. As I wrote before, No. Just No.

  8. TomReynolds

    OMG! What a lot of misguided assertions. First of all, an economist at NCC shouldn’t carry as much weight as one from Harvard or Yale (or even UCONN). There’s a reason he is at NCC. Why did he buy a house across the street from the golf course in the first place?
    From what I have been hearing the OHPA is covering it’s costs. And their new marketing efforts ARE making an impact at the course (weather is always an enemy to a golf course and this year has been tough), but I look at the tee sheet online and it looks like things are doing well. April 2014 was the single most profitable month in the 45 year history of Oak Hills, so don’t talk about the previous OHPA boards or the previous course management teams as being superior. The team in place is looking pretty good.
    If the course was reduced to a 9-hole course it would be doomed to fail, as no one wants to play just 9 holes. Maybe that is the plan that the “ecomomist” has in mind. Reverting the park back to the city will only put a burden back onto the city, as taxpayer money will then be needed to support and maintain it. Smart idea – huh?
    Let the OHPA try and make the move to make the park even more successful than it has been in the past. It sounds to me that Norwalk has a chance to make a unique, special place in Fairfield County and will not be the red-headed stepchild it has always been to Stamford. I am sure that there are some at Stamford’s Golf Authority who are truly scared about what Norwalk (Oak Hills) can steal away from Stamford (Sterling Farms).
    Also, to Francis:
    Westport has only ONE public course (2 private)
    Darien has ZERO public courses (3 private)
    A renewed Oak Hills and a driving range will attract $$$ to Norwalk. Isn’t that what it should be about?

  9. Suzanne

    Mr. Reynolds, So Mr. Cantor is an economist living across from the golf course. What is your point? “From what I have been hearing” says nothing to the long term facts of profit and loss at Oak Hills. Notice I write, “long term.” It seems like, in the past, and I think I can make this assertion safely, the OHPA has been singing profit and success only to go to the City of Norwalk, twice, for $200,000 loans to keep the lights on. Your assertions count for very little given the lack of fact. Again, why aren’t golfers playing the course more so it can recoup its losses and re-pay outstanding loans to the City of Norwalk? What is so deficient about the 18 hole course, as it is, that golfers just won’t play to meet the costs? That is the edict for the OHPA by charter. Until it is met, no more money should be given to projects that the OHPA may or may not be able to manage. They have certainly not been managing Oak Hills to meet their responsibilities so far (April 2014 accounts for exactly one month in the entire trajectory of losses and profits for the Oak Hills Golf Course. It is not representative of the entire financial picture.)

  10. Steve

    And to think all these years growing up in Norwalk, I thought Oak Hill’s was privately owned and operated.

    I briefly read through the Master Plan and it does not seem like a safe bet. Can anyone give me a ballpark date when all existing+new debt would be repaid and the town would see a profit? Seems like decades from now…

    As a non-golfer, Oak Hill’s does not represent much value to me. The driving range idea does spark some interest, but having it returned to open space/park/rec is far more interesting. Side note, Cranbury park is by far the best. I am considering having my wedding there, but may be unable to due to occupancy limits of the mansion. I certainly wouldn’t mind a “Silvermine Park” with a nice building to hold events.

    On the flip side, turning the golf course back into a park seems like a waste of an asset. I would like to see management of OHPA reviewed by an independent party before any more multi million dollar decisions are made.

  11. Beth Altman

    Looking at their financials this place is teetering on bankruptcy even though the place is busier. Their expenses are climbing in almost every line item. Simple math is you can’t spend more than you take in. Having 36k in the bank at the end of March which by the way is 138k less then you had at this time last year is not a good situation. Do you truly believe you are out of the woods because the busy season is upon you? OHPA before you know it winter will be upon us. You need to look at expenses now not 6 months from now. Who is watching the store? Oak Hills I’m on your side but maybe new management with some expertise in running a golf course would help.

  12. Bill Wrenn

    They question to ask is this: If the Oak Hills Park Authority took this plan to a commercial bank and asked for a $4.35 million loan, do you think they would receive it? You don’t have to be an economist to realize that the answer would be a resounding “no.” So why should Norwalk taxpayers be forced to make a risky loan that would be turned down by a bank. Banks have problems recently but are learning from past mistakes. Let’s hope that we in Norwalk will learn from ours.

  13. the donut hole

    At current rate of investment over the next 20 years, we will spend as a city about $150 million on our city parks ($90 million opex and 60 capex).
    $4.35 million for the golf course would represent about $250k per year payment. If the business model is a sound one, let’s go for it. Having a full service golf course will increase everyone’s property values in the city.

  14. Suzanne

    DH, Pie in the sky. Property values increase with better education and lower taxes, not a public golf course. How is Oak Hills not a “full service” golf course today? You check in, get your card, rent a cart (if necessary) and ride the paths from tee to tee. A golf game, full service.

  15. the donut hole

    No range Suzanne. No lockers. Wake up.

  16. Suzanne

    Many very fine clubs in this area do not have a driving range. Lockers could be held in another location – how about your car? And, you have not answered the question. What is so bad about this existing golf course, as it is, that golfers do not want to play it enough to meet the “nut” that is the responsibility of the OHPA? The responsibility is yours now. Taxpayers should not have to pick up the indulgences of a fringe few. I have stretched out plenty of times in a parking lot, club in hand, and had a fine round. Many golfers do. There is nothing about the sport of golf that requires lockers or a driving range to make it a full service game. Golf didn’t start that way at St. Andrews and doesn’t have to be that way in the Town of Norwalk, CT, now. DH, wake up.

  17. the donut hole

    Suzanne. Nothing is wrong with Oaks other than it needs a range and can use lockers.
    By your logic we should shut down every city park, since as you say they are not used by a majority of residents.
    The city would save $150 million in the next 20 years with this move. Of course no one would buy a house here ever again. But since you are on a crusade to help kill the golf course, why stop there?

  18. Suzanne

    Ridiculous. I AM a golfer (when other, unrelated injuries, don’t put me on the sidelines.) Why would I want to “kill off” the course? I love it but there are responsibilities to keeping Oak Hills financially that are not being met. Taxpayers (and players because this management seems to be putting the future of Oak Hills in jeopardy) do not deserve to have to pick up where golfing management leaves off in competence and financial responsibility. You are just being needlessly provocative and using no logic at all. DH, I cannot respect such statements without foundation. Wake up.

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