To the editor:
I smell a rat.
Representative Larry Cafero, in a retirement gesture, has proposed that the state Bond Commission grant $1.5 million to Norwalk.
Is this largesse ear-marked for closing the K-12 educational gap? Is it for vital infrastructure? Amenities for seniors?
No, it’s for a driving range that the majority of Norwalk taxpayers neither want nor need. A boondoggle proposed by a body that has consistently failed to meet its obligations. From a representative who makes the Grinch look like Santa Claus.
Back in the booming ’60s, the city of Norwalk borrowed money to build a public 18-hole golf course at Oak Hills to be maintained and operated by the Parks Department. Because the golf course required much of the Parks budget, the city government created an Oak Hills Park Authority (OHPA), responsible to City Hall, to operate the park. OHPA would use its surplus revenue to feed a capital fund, which in turn could deal with major problems and opportunities going forward. In return the authority would pay rent to the city. To help the new authority in its growing pains, the city excused rent for the first five years of operation.
Unforeseeable to all but a few economists at the time, real income for the middle class failed to grow over the next 30 years, a situation aggravated by the 2008 financial crisis. Today, fewer and fewer people can afford to play golf.
There is also less time for any sport today. Leisure time has shrunk for both sexes: dads spend only 2.6 hours per week participating in sports compared to 1.4 hours for mothers; not enough time to play 18 holes. As Jason Gray of the Wall Street Journal said, “I’m more likely to become the next prime minister of Belgium than to find 4½ hours on a weekend to go play golf. Accordingly, men and women are turning to physical fitness facilities instead of golf or tennis.
At the beginning, with no rent to pay, the OHPA started to accumulate the statutory capital fund, but soon, violating its charter, it cannibalized the fund. To try to raise revenue, the OHPA borrowed $2.5 million from the city to build a large restaurant. But the restaurant failed, and its successor is fighting for its life as we speak.
Consistently delinquent in paying off its debt to the city, the OHPA had to borrow another $150,000 to avoid shutting down two years ago. By that time, it had decided that only a large driving range could save it from going under, even though the city had rejected this plan some 15 years before. Asking for bids, the OHPA stipulated that the winning contractor must put up the money to build and operate the range in return for rent and a percentage of the revenue.
Only two firms submitted bids, but the winner failed to get the financing to build the range. In other words, lenders believed the plan was too risky. Undaunted, Chariman Clyde Mount, and Ernest DesRochers, the champion of the driving range, decided to move the goal posts and borrow another $2.5 million from the city, which meant convincing City Hall that Norwalk needed a municipal driving range.
Rather than proceed with proper vetting by the city, Mount and DesRochers executed an end run with their friend Larry Cafero. If he could get the driving range onto the Connecticut State Bond Committee’s agenda, they could go to the Common Council and say, hey, we only need another $1 mil of Norwalk’s tax money to provide a driving range for our golfers.
Mount and DesRochers, who ran the OHPA’s secretive Ad Hoc committee, a virtual black-hole with no recorded minutes or any other kind of transparency, failed to inform the other members of the Authority of their dealings with Representative Cafero. The first time other OHPA members heard what these leaders had done, was when they read it in the papers or on the web.
However, in Sunday’s Hour poll, the readers voted 2-1 that the state should wait for approval from Norwalk before funding the range. Representative Cafero should know better rather than pulling a fast one with Norwalk taxpayers
In several meetings of the OHPA, even some golfers have opposed a driving range for aesthetic as well as economic reasons. At a time when middle class is hurting, the last thing we need is an expensive driving rage that has no guarantee it will pay for itself.