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Letter: Hole solution

By Paul Cantor

(Submitted as an open letter)

Dear Mayor Rilling and Members of the Common Council:

One solution to the financial problems faced by the Oak Hills Authority that should satisfy golfers and non-golfers alike is to reduce the course to nine holes.

But that solution is not entertained because the members of the Authority are bent on promoting the interest of golfers who favor 18 holes at the expense of the public at large. These 18-holers want many things.

They want all 144 acres in Oak Hills Park to be devoted to golf. They want the golf course to be maintained in pristine condition no matter the water and harmful chemicals that requires. They want taxpayers to help pay for maintaining the course so that their green fees can be kept as low as possible. They want a restaurant that caters to their needs before, during and after they play. They want a driving range. And they want the interests of taxpayers who do not play golf and think the land in Oak Hills should be devoted to other uses appropriate for a public park to be disregarded.

And so far, with the exception of the driving range, they have gotten everything on their wish list. Indeed, with the help of millions of dollars in loans from the city that have had to be restructured they have been able to construct a large restaurant, keep their green fees low, and cover their operating costs. Now, in order to service those loans, they claim they need a driving range.

But as The Norwalk Hour put it in 1999 when the OHPA first proposed building a driving range in Oak Hills and then abandoned the idea:

“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.”

Clearly, if the OHPA were a private enterprise it would be bankrupt. The fact that it continues to exist is due to taxpayer largesse. Furthermore, even in the unlikely case that a driving range might generate income for the city, it is unlikely taxpayers would think that the priority use for that money should be to subsidize a golf course.

Hence, reducing the 18-hole course in Oak Hills to nine holes is in the interest of the majority of taxpayers of Norwalk, including most golfers. It is in the interest of golfers because a nine-hole golf course is more likely to be financially sustainable. And it is in the interest of all taxpayers because it would free up land for many other uses appropriate to a public park.

Below, important issues associated with the long-standing controversy regarding the drive for the driving range in Oak Hills Park are addressed in a question and answer format.

Why is the Oak Hills Park Authority (OHPA) seeking to have a driving range constructed in Oak Hills Park?

The OHPA thinks the driving range will help it cover the cost of operating and maintaining the golf course in Oak Hills Park. Without revenues from an outside source, it claims the course is not financially sustainable.

Why does the Oak Hills Authority need another source of revenue to sustain the 18-hole golf course?

Because the cost of operating and maintaining an 18-hole golf course are high, while the demand to play 18 holes of golf has decreased to the point that golfers are no longer willing to pay green fees high enough to cover those costs.

What does it cost to maintain an 18-hole golf course?

It costs “an estimated $500,000 to $1 million per year just for maintenance of a typical 18-hole golf course” according to Nuwire Investor.

What is the evidence that the demand for golf has decreased?

“NFG [National Golf Foundation] research reveals that the percentage of the overall population that plays golf has declined over the past 20 years,” writes David Hueber. “In 1990, the percentage of the population that played golf was 12.1 percent, by 2000 it was 11.1 percent and by 2010 it was down to 10.2 percent. During the first nine years of the 2000 to 2010 decade, rounds played were down 5.7 percent, from 518.4 million in 2001 to 463 million rounds played in 2011. Put another way: The percentage of Americans who play golf fell 17 percent from 2000 to 2010 according to an article in the Fiscal Times titled, “Why Public Golf Courses Are in the Rough.”

Furthermore rounds played nationally were down 4.4 percent through October 2013, according to the National Golf Foundation. And, according to information provided by the OHPA, resident adult rounds played at Oak Hills decreased 8.7 percent in 2013.

What is the reason the demand for golf has decreased?

The primary reason the demand to play 18 holes of golf has decreased is that golf is expensive to play in terms of time and money. In the words of the study by David Hueber cited above, “While the cost and the difficulty of playing the game are obvious impediments to the appeal of the game, the time that it takes to play the game has been noted by golfers and non-golfers alike as a reason why they don’t play as often or don’t play at all. It is not just the time that it takes to play the game; it is the four to five hours that it takes away from other activities such as family, work and other social activities, many of which are more affordable than playing golf.” (See also the quote by Jack Nicklaus in the “What is the rationale for reducing the size of the 18-hole golf course in Oak Hills?” section below).

Will the driving range help the OHPA solve its financial problems?

It seems highly unlikely that the driving range will generate a significant amount of money for the Oak Hills Authority for all of the following reasons:

First, the fact that more driving ranges don’t exist is an indication that they are not particularly profitable. If they were as profitable as the OHPA maintains, private developers would be buying up land and constructing them.

Second, of the three 18-hole golf courses within a few miles of Oak Hills Park two, Shorehaven in Norwalk and Longshore in Westport, have short practice (not driving) ranges without nets while one, Silvermine, does not even have a practice range. If driving ranges were particularly profitable all three would have constructed them long ago.

Third, the goal of Total Driving Range Solutions, the private sector firm that the OHPA plans to grant the right to construct and operate the driving range in Oak Hill Park, is to maximize its profits, not the revenues of the OHPA. Hence, it will look for ways to reduce the fees it pays and pass on costs to the Authority.

Fourth, as the Norwalk Hour put it in a 1999 editorial when the OHPA first came up with the idea of constructing a driving range in Oak Hills: “Oak Hills, tucked away as it is off Fillow Street, is not the most accessible location. Driving ranges on major highways succeed because there is considerable traffic passing by.”

Fifth, the fact that the driving range in Oak Hills will have to compete with Stamford’s more conveniently located Sterling Farms driving range will limit its ability to generate profits.

Sixth, the fact that the driving range is located in a residential neighborhood concerned with traffic, noise, and lights will limit its ability to generate profit.

Seventh, the limited amount of parking spaces in Oak Hills Park that might be used by visitors to a driving range will limit its ability to generate profits.

Eighth, by making the golf course less attractive to golfers, the driving range will lead to fewer rounds being played and hence lower revenues from green fees. As John Sharkey wrote, “I am speaking as a golfer of Oak Hills in reference to the proposed site of the driving range, which would be located by the sixth green. I am not in favor as this is not convenient to the golfers. For a golfer to come and practice and have to walk that distance to practice for an hour is not feasible to the golfer. Do we want a driving range or practice range? … The congestion of the golfers walking to the range will interfere with tee time golfers and traffic will ruin the practice green.

Should a driving range be constructed with the goal of generating the income needed to sustain a golf course?

One answer that would likely resonate with most taxpayers is: “No. If green fees can’t cover the operating and capital costs of an 18-hole golf course situated on tax-free land the course should be reduced in size and the land freed up made available for activities favored by people who don’t play golf.

Or put another way:

No, money obtained from a driving range or any other source should not be used to sustain a golf course situated on tax-free land that, due to a lack of demand, can’t cover its operating and capital costs.

Or again:

There are many uses for money obtained by the city from any source that should take precedence over using it to provide additional subsidies to an 18-hole golf course situated on tax-free land.

What is the rationale for reducing the size of the 18-hole golf course in Oak Hills?

As the following quotes and excerpts from information readily available on the web indicate, golfers and non-golfers alike provide the rationale for reducing the size of the 18-hole golf course in Oak Hills.

18-hole rounds down, 9-hole rounds up at Oak Hills

While resident 18-hole rounds were down 8.7 percent last year, nine-hole rounds were up 45.5 percent.

“Shorten the Game”

Jack Nicklaus

Jack NIcklaus – Conversations with the Golden Bear: 12 Hole Golf

“Since 2006 we’ve lost 20 percent of the women and 20 percent of the kids in the game of golf. I mean, that’s a horrible statistic … If that’s the case, why? Well, why is because it takes too long. I mean, my kids don’t play golf anymore or very little because they are spending time on the weekends with their kids playing Little League, soccer, lacrosse, football, basketball, whatever it might be. They’re not playing golf. Those soccer games and those lacrosse games, they take up a field for an hour, an hour and a half. So we’ve got to have a game that takes that amount of time. Everybody’s got 18 holes. Why [can’t it] be two nine- holes. Why can’t it be two nines? [Or] three sixes. Everybody’s in a cart anyway. What difference does it make. … You’ve got to figure out how to keep people in this stupid game. And the only way I know to go about it is to shorten the game from what it is.”

“Nicklaus says the length of time it takes to play an 18-hole round is alienating many golfers, particularly youngsters who are used to playing most athletic contests in 2 to 3 hours.

Fairways Under Fire:

Are Little-Used Public Golf Courses Worth the Space?

By Peter Harnik and Ryan Donahue

Landscape Architecture Magazine, June 2011

“Continuing to invest in golf courses that are not financially self-sustaining at the cost of other urban recreation is completely unjustifiable,’ says Meredith Thomas, the director of San Francisco’s Neighborhood Parks Council. In cities with tight budgets and little open space parks are expected to serve multiple demands in small spaces.

Sincerely,

Harriet Abel

Paul Cantor

Ursula Corkutt

Henry Huse

Diane Keefe

Scott Kimmich

William Krummel

Yvonne Lopaur

George McGuire

Nancy McGuire

Peter Schuerch

Comments

18 responses to “Letter: Hole solution”

  1. Tom Reynolds

    This is one of the most run-on, “false fact” manifestos I have ever read. I think the authors need to verify their facts a little better. Quoting 1999 data is hardly relevant to what is happening at Oak Hills in 2014.

  2. David

    Making Oak Hills a 9-hole course would be its death knell. There’s no way any respectable golfer is going to take a nine hole course seriously. I wouldn’t play it, except as some sort of novelty, say, late in the summer evenings, when days are long. But perhaps you want Oak Hills to die off? If that’s the case, a 9-hole course is your shortest route.

  3. > Quoting 1999 data is hardly relevant to what is happening at Oak Hills in 2014.

    Why? Has the population density of Norwalk gone down dramatically since then? Or are the city’s finances suddenly in better shape? Or has tectonic drift caused the park move 15 miles north?

  4. Paul Cantor

    OCTOBER 31, 2013. “according to the National Golf Foundation (NGF), more than 4,230 nine-hole golf facilities currently exist. That’s 27 percent of all U.S. golfing facilities. A good start. …almost half (46 percent) of golfers surveyed said time constraints from other areas in their life, such as job and family, reduced how often they played golf. And more than half (54 percent) admitted that time was a primary reason they didn’t play more. The same percent (54 percent) reported money as a factor in their decreased tee-offs, meaning there are many golfers holding back from hitting the links when a nine-hole round could be their answer….more nine-hole games are being played than most people think — at both stand-alone nine-hole courses and larger facilities. They’re hoping that with the advent of more publicity about the availability of nine-hole rounds as a valid and equally enjoyable option, more courses will jump on the bandwagon to promote incremental nine-hole play. http://www.golfacademy.edu/blog/post.cfm/why-won-t-golfers-make-time-for-nine

    JUNE 2013. NEW INITIATIVE ENCOURAGES 9-HOLE ROUNDS; USGA, PGA of America to provide support NEW YORK — Americans are spending an average of 500 to 1,400 more hours at the office per year than their parents did. Most people have seen time for leisure activities shrink to two hours per day, maximum. But even a two-hour window of free time can be a chance to play nine holes of golf. In its June 2013 issue, Golf Digest, the bible of the avid golfer, is launching a campaign to support and encourage more nine-hole rounds. Many golfers can play nine holes even when they are busy—and a little golf is always better than no golf at all.

    With promotional support from the United States Golf Association and the PGA of America, Golf Digest will create a list of nine-hole-friendly golf courses that will appear at golfdigest.com. The Time for Nine list comprises courses that allow and promote nine-hole play for men, women, juniors and families on layouts that make it easy to do so. Golfers are encouraged to submit qualifying courses to [email protected] or [email protected] or [email protected] and the list will be published at golfdigest.com.

    “We think golfers will play a whole lot more if they join the growing number of golfers who have come to love nine-hole rounds,” says Golf Digest Chairman & Editor-in-Chief Jerry Tarde. “The real message is, don’t let the inability to play 18 pull the game away from you. Eighteen is great. But nine is fine.”

    In addition to serving as President of the PGA of America, Ted Bishop is the general manager and PGA director of golf at The Legends Golf Club in Franklin, Ind. Thus, he understands the time constraints that many people are under and is a proponent of nine-hole rounds, both as an industry leader and a golf-facility operator.

    “We are very pleased to support Golf Digest and the ‘Time for Nine’ initiative,” says Bishop. “Golf can be experienced in many different ways, and I’m proud that PGA Professionals across the country are encouraging people to have fun by playing nine holes. This new effort shows the commitment that Golf Digest has for the long-term well-being of the game, and I am confident that PGA Professionals will embrace it.”

    The USGA’s support for the “Time for Nine” campaign is part of a multifaceted program that was announced in February to identify challenges and solutions regarding pace-of-play issues in the game of golf. This USGA-led set of initiatives includes: an analysis of key factors known to influence pace of play; the development of a pace-of-play model based on quantifiable data; improvements to the USGA Pace Rating System; on-site assistance at golf courses to help managers assess and improve pace of play; and the creation of player-education programs.

    “Five-hour plus rounds of golf are incompatible with the compressed time that many of us have available for recreational activities,” said USGA President Glen D. Nager. “Time for Nine is a fun and creative start to promoting the nine-hole round of golf as a complete and enjoyable experience that is consistent with the traditions of playing the game.”

    According to the USGA, nine-hole rounds of golf are fully compatible with both the Rules of Golf and the USGA Handicap System. For more information on how to calculate a nine-hole handicap, visit http://www.usga.org/play9.

    BLOOMBERG NEWS U.S. GOLF COURSE CLOSURES EXCEED OPENINGS FOR EIGHTH YEAR BY MICHAEL BUTEAU JANUARY 17, 2014

  5. McKeen Shanogg

    There is no such thing as a regulation 9-hole golf course, which automatically means Oak Hills would be ineligible for tournaments and outings. These are big money makers (golf fees, cart rentals, restaurant meals) that the golf course depends on for financial survival. The pro also makes money on sales of merchandise through tournaments & outings.

    The PGA requires an 18-hole course to register a legitimate round of golf, just as in baseball there are 9 innings. Can you imagine the Professional Baseball Association having games with 5 innings because people no longer have time to sit through a 9-inning game? That day is far away, if ever.

    Most golfers like to play 18 holes, so they would go around twice on a 9-hole course. This would give more wear and tear to the 9 greens and tees, meaning increased maintenance costs. It would also limit the number of tee times available, again cutting into revenue.

  6. Mike Mushak

    Paul, your argument is so much stronger because of all the facts you use, with surveys and studies. No one else commenting here has used any facts except their own opinion. That’s fine, but in a fact-based reality, the argument backed up with science wins.
    .
    To play 18 holes, you just play 9 holes twice, as McKeen says, and you may even get better each time. If you want to run a half mile, you go around a quarter mile track twice. I don’t see the difference. Wear and tear happens regardless of who it causing it. If it gets a little crowded, deal with it. Its a municipal course, not a country club.
    .

    I recall from an article from last year a number of $200,000 spent annually just for chemicals for the current 18 holes, and another huge number to water and mow all that (the free water runs out in dry spells and they have to buy water like the rest of us, hugely wasteful.) It seems cutting all that in half is a no-brainer, and a huge benefit to the environment. The wells have not been tested as far as I know, like in North Stamford where all kinds of nasty stuff has been found, , and I bet the tons of toxic chemicals dumped on the fairways and greens to kill pests and fungus, as well as nitrogen, would show up in surrounding groundwater and wells, which there are hundreds of as the city water don’t go beyond Oak Hills Oak Hills I believe.
    .
    I also doubt that 12 percent of Norwalk plays there, as another post stated. That’s over 10,000 residents who play golf. Somehow that number sounds highly inflated. I wonder how anyone would even know that, as no one I know has ever been surveyed.
    .
    I’m not saying a 9 hole course is definitely the solution (what about a 12?), but it is worth considering for future financial and environmental sustainability, just as other towns across the country are doing or have done, because it makes so much sense.

  7. Paul Cantor

    “There is no such thing as a regulation 9-hole golf course.”

    REGULATION GOLF COURSE: A Regulation Golf Course is defined as any nine-hole or 18-hole golf course that includes a variety of par three, par four and par five holes, and is of traditional length and par; a nine-hole facility must be at least 2,600 yards in length and at least par 33, and an 18-hole facility at least 5,200 yards in length and at least par 66. http://www.ngcoa.org/pageview.asp?doc=511

    “The PGA requires an 18-hole course to register a legitimate round of golf, just as in baseball there are 9 innings.”

    WHAT IS A 9-HOLE HANDICAP? In this busy day and age, many golfers don’t have time to get in a full 18 holes every time they play. In fact, quite a few only play 9 holes at a time. Instead of forcing these golfers to combine their scores every time they play, the USGA created a 9-hole handicap, which is denoted by an “N” (as in 12.2N). Golfers who have 9-hole handicaps can compete as normal against other 9-hole handicap players by giving the difference between their handicaps over the nine holes (a 9N gives a 12N three strokes on a course with a 113 slope – but only on nine holes. If they play eighteen, the 12N receives 6 strokes). When a 9-hole handicap golfer plays against an 18-hole handicap golfer, they simply double their handicap (12N becomes a 24) and are able to compete fairly.

  8. cc-rider

    Sorry, but quoting things via google doesn’t make you a argument winner.

    A more pertinent search would be what happens to revenues after a 18 hole course converts to 9 holes. It would be optimistic to think revenues would be half of what they are now. I don’t believe the maintenance side would be half as cheap either.

    I will say that they could build a hell of a practice facility with only nine holes because of the additional land available.

    Lastly, please stop calling the golf course a park! It is about as much as a park as Yankee stadium is…..It is idiotic to call Oak Hills anything but a golf facility.

  9. Don’t Panic

    The tennis players might be confused by an insistence on using golf clubs. LOL.
    It’s a park because we promised the state it would be a park with a golf course in it when we took a lot of money from them to buy the land. Opinions are just that in this case. Insulting people doesn’t change the facts.

  10. Suzanne

    cc-rider, Your statement about “quoting via google (sic) doesn’t make you an argument winner:” I am afraid this shows just how much of this well-researched letter you actually read. If you will note, even the follow up comments by Mr. Cantor have legitimate references to organizations recognized by all major golf organizations. In addition, the various quotes, especially by Jack Nicklaus are fact and, again, Mr. Cantor references his sources. It is unwise to make such a claim on your part against a college professor who knows how to use logic and fact to “win” an argument. That makes him a winner, if you have to put it that way, and your reading of the material considerably “light.”

  11. Suzanne

    McKeen Shanogg, Please see Mr. Cantor’s letter re: regulation 9-hole golf courses which not only exist but are sanctioned by all major golf organizations. When you say tournament play is a big “money maker” for Oak Hills, how much? Even if reducing the holes from 18 to 9 means disallowing tournament play, which Mr. Cantor’s quote shows it would not, just how profitable is this play and how many tournaments are there per year? What is the net profit from these tournaments that contribute so greatly to the reduction of expenses in running Oak Hills? Facts, please.

  12. 4thepark

    CC-Rider writes: “please stop calling the golf course a park!”

    OAK HILLS PARK Chapter 73: PARK AUTHORITIES (http://www.ecode360.com/27054913)
    § 73-1 Creation; purposes. [Amended 5-27-2003]

    A. There is hereby created, in accordance with the provisions of Sections 7-130a through 7-130w of the Connecticut General Statutes, an authority known as the “Oak Hills PARK Authority,” with a principal office located at Oak Hills PARK, for the purpose of acquiring, constructing, operating, maintaining and managing the Oak Hills PARK, including the golf course, tennis courts and related recreational facilities currently located therein and any related project or projects as defined in such enabling acts and as further defined herein.

    EXCERPT FROM THE OAK HILL PARK MASTER PLAN REPORT prepared for the Oak Hills PARK Authority, Norwalk, Connecticut by Concept Golf Consultants, LLC, March 4, 1999.

    The Master Plan proposes to incorporate a wider variety of uses for the PARK throughout the year and recommends ways in which the PARK may be improved to better serve the public.

  13. cc-rider

    Suzanne- I am the only one posting on this forum who has worked their entire working life in the golf business.

    Mr Cantor can use all the quotes he wants, but none of them give an end result of converting the golf course to 9 holes. The real question is- convert to 9 holes and then what? None of these questions are addressed in his letter and without them make a less than persuasive argument. I mean would you cut off a limb because a famous doctor suggested it is wise?

    Thanks for all the technical jargon about it being a park.

  14. Has anyone considered conducting a survey? If the course is reduced to 9-holes, will these golfers (who actually use and support it the “park/course” with real money) continue to play there? Or, will this core group take their money to Stamford and spend it at Sterling Farms (or elsewhere), thereby eliminating their guaranteed green and membership fees for the chance that the people who say they want a 9-hole course and will play there will actually do as they say?
    *
    A bird in the hand is worth more than two in the bush.

  15. Suzanne

    cc-rider, Congratulations on working in the golf business. I am sure you are envied by many and I think it would be a great profession to be in. That, however, makes you an expert in working in the field and not in the trends and organizations so quoted in Mr. Cantor’s letters. It does not make you a statistician, for example, nor does it qualify you as an expert in the trends for golfing across the country and, in some cases in the data cited above, internationally. I like playing 18 holes, BTW, but do not often have the time and play the back or front nine of a course. I also can see both sides: I love the historic design of Oak Hills and would like to see it preserved. However, because of the trends cited above and the recent financial reports (which do not include at least two items of financial responsibility and pressure on the OHPA, the loan servicing and the environmental remediation for leaking oil tanks), I don’t see how it can be made financially tenable over time. In addition, the charter that is cited above does say that the Park should include activities for everyone. Everyone in the City and that balance is a bit skewed by the overwhelming presence of the golf course on this property, financed in part by a federal grant that required activities for everyone as a Park (thus the name.) Many other activities could be included in the balance of the eliminated nine holes that would allow everyone to participate and which have been mentioned a number of times of this venue. Again, mixed feelings. Love the 18 holes but, at this point, it just does not seem financially responsible to the Norwalk taxpayers to keep them. Who would play nine? I have no idea. I am sure some golfers would go elsewhere. But, financially, I believe Mr. Cantor shows that nine hole courses are the only ones financially making it. So, it is about responsibility to the taxpayers at this point and, sadly, that WOULD mean cutting off a huge limb to make the golf course work.

  16. cc-rider

    Suzanne- You have no idea my background in golf so no congrats is needed. Is anyone asking Tom Brady for his opinion on Football Stadium design? Nicklaus has many opinions and they are not the holy gospel. No data was presented on how many golf courses actually converted from 18 to 9 in recent years. I don’t see how you can make a very compelling argument without that information. I am not saying it is a awful idea, but that the argument presented is incomplete at best.

  17. Suzanne

    cc-rider: I was not in anyway being cynical about your background. You said you had a lifelong background in golf and I say congratulations because all of us (or at least the vast majority of us) have not been so lucky. I can’t think of a better job (other than my own, I guess, and it includes, within its purview, golf course design.) Fair enough about your assessment – my only slight quibble is that Jack Nicklaus has been making a living designing and constructing golf courses for quite some time now. He has been joined in the venture obviously with a design team but one that includes his son. So that kind of puts him in another league in terms of expertise or being “just” a notable retired golfer. He has to know the trends because it is his business. There is information on conversion out there but I yield to Mr. Cantor who has access and information to that data far more quickly and comprehensively than I do.

  18. Betsy Wrenn

    Good to see a lively discussion concerning the use of parkland we all own together. There are quite a few articles about the benefits of 9 holes over 18, and I’d just like to add another succinct quote from a 2013 article:

    “Troon Golf – one of the largest golf operators in the world – has recently stated that they would like more 9-hole courses developed to make the game more attractive and less time-consuming. In 2012 HSBC produced a report, entitled, Golf’s 2020 Vision – in which it states the need for golf to be made more attractive for non-golfers, for families, for women and schoolchildren. It also says that 9-hole facilities are the future of golf – quicker rounds and more family-focused.”

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