NORWALK, Conn. – A loan meant to cover the expenses of Norwalk’s Oak Hills Park golf course to get it through the winter was approved Monday night by Norwalk’s tax board. The matter will now go on to the Common Council.
The Board of Estimate and Taxation approved the $150,000 special appropriation, with only one member, Jim Clark, voting against the measure. One opponent of the plan thanked him, saying he was the only one to speak for the taxpayer.
“It’s really bad, really wrong what you are doing,” Yvonne Lopaur said, to the rest of the board.
The alternative to the loan is to close the course, which isn’t practical, Mayor Richard Moccia, an ex-officio member of the board, said. “There’s some misapprehension here,” he said. “It’s almost as if we could close the course — it’s like a map, we could fold it up and it goes away. If the course closed tomorrow, we still have the obligations as a city for the debt service.”
Finance Director Thomas Hamilton agreed. “We own the land and it’s our golf course,” he said. “If this isn’t approved, if the Oak Hills Park Authority can’t meet payroll, the problem ultimately comes back to the city because we’ll be stuck with a golf course with no employees and so forth. But it’s going to be somebody’s responsibilities to figure out how we pick up the pieces, what we do next.”
Oak Hills authority member Pat Williams mentioned the debt repayment made to the city last September as she began to explain why the authority needs a loan to make it through the winter. Without that, the authority would be in the black, she said.
Board Chairman Fred Wilms pressed her for the “big picture” behind the authority’s troubles. “The revenues are down,” she said. “It seems to have gone down a little bit every year. The rounds are less, the revenue has stayed about the same. We increased rates last year; it offset the lower rounds.”
Oak Hill Interim Executive Director Shelly Guyer said the course is down 500 resident adult members from where it was five years ago. “That’s a big nut to try to recapture,” he said. “That’s one of the areas we’re going to focus hard on in our marketing efforts.”
There were 45,000 rounds of golf played at the course five years ago, he said; there are 35,000 rounds played now.
There were also significant problems last spring – the restaurant wasn’t open, there was no golf pro and the golf carts needed to be replaced, he said. All of those issues have been addressed.
Hurricane Sandy cost the course $70,000 to $75,000 in lost revenue, Director of Management and Budget Robert Barron said. Moccia said the course also had been affected by Hurricane Irene and the surprise snowstorm that followed Sandy on Nov. 7, and admitted there were other problems. “Several years ago we got a little laissez-faire. I don’t think we marketed it correctly,” he said.
Clark was the lone voice speaking against granting the authority the loan. “What concerns me, is that for quite a period of time the projections that we have seen have seemed … they were overly optimistic,” he said. “That concerns me because we find ourselves in these situations where we find ourselves today.”
He said he hoped the authority would change its ways.
“I think you are looking at other ways to change the revenue model,” he said. “Change it, because if you just keep doing the same thing, find ourselves in a similar situation.”
Williams said the board is “on the cusp” of straightening things out.
Moccia said the board is heading in the right direction.
“Several board members were not on the board in those previous years and some of the employees who made the optimistic predictions are no longer on the board or employed by Oak Hills. … You look at the expertise on the board, from the financial business women, business men, all of them have experience in balancing budgets and trying to turn companies around.”
Correction made, 12:45 a.m.