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.
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 – 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.