Norwalk discusses new bar in Oak Hills restaurant

Mayor Harry Rilling leads Thursday’s Oak Hills Park discussion in City Hall. From left, next to Rilling, are Common Council members Tom Livingston (D-District E), John Igneri (D-District E), John Kydes (D-District C) and Barbara Smyth (D-At Large). Other Council members were attending a Health, Welfare and Public Safety Committee meeting running concurrently on another floor.

Correction Sept. 29: Five Council members present, Greg Burnett came in after the meeting began; photo added; Updated, 7:28 a.m.: Copy edits

NORWALK, Conn. – Mayor Harry Rilling and five Common Council members listened Thursday to opinions about a bar at Oak Hills Park.

It wouldn’t be a bar, but a “bar in a restaurant,” Oak Hills Park Authority Chairman Bill Waters said to begin the discussion.  Opponent Yvonne Lopaur answered a short while later that there had already been a bar in the restaurant but the Authority had taken it out to put in a pro shop.

Former OHPA Chairman Joe Tamburri used the occasion to speak about the much-maligned restaurant building for the first time, he said.

Video by Harold Cobin at end of story

“Always the finger was pointed at the restaurant as the scapegoat,” Tamburri said. “Well, let me tell you. We had credible people on that authority  as well as others that the Mayor appointed to be on that Committee, so we were very well-rounded as to what was taking place.”

All of this was caught on video by NancyOnNorwalk volunteer Harold Cobin. Tamburri began speaking about 22 minutes into the meeting.

“I can recall back, before I got involved with that restaurant situation: 10 years, with one administration, I am sure you can fill in the gap, and it never went anywhere,” Tamburri said.

The financials for the restaurant building, constructed while Alex Knopp was Mayor, were solid with a 15-year plan but “so many issues,” and problems came up, and the loan was restructured to include the “irrigation that had 10 years remaining,” he said.

“The city set up the Authority financially to fail because of the restructuring,” he said. “…We don’t need a sit down bar. A bar has always been there, it will continue to be there, a sit down bar is not necessary.”

Waters said a bar in the restaurant would put it on a level playing field with other establishments.

A bar has the connotation of people sitting around drinking, a business that stays open to 2 a.m., Rilling said. Waters said the bar would be open to 10 or 11, unless there was a special party and the restaurant operator would pay to construct the bar.

“Common sense will tell you it will never be in a level playing field. It’s in a residential area, not in an area where people are going to come and go to Oak Hills,” Ron Paladino said. “…I don’t think a sit down bar is going to do anything. It should be something simple for golfers to get a hot dog, a hamburger.”

“The bar is not going to solve our problems. The bar would allow the operator to make enough money to pay its rent,” Waters said, responding to criticism.

“You know that for a fact?” someone asked.

“We can back it up,” he said.

“I probably researched this subject more than anybody,” former OHPA Chairman Ernie DesRochers said. “… while it’s easy to stand here to point fingers about decisions that got made, that’s definitely in the past.”

The original intent was about 180 degrees from what was built and “the building usage needs to change in order to get more with the times,” he said. “…Business changes. It happens and I think the business of trying to cater to large parties, that has changed. What we need to do is allow the building to be what it needs to be.”

Lopaur and her husband, Paul Cantor, said the park should be returned to the Recreation and Parks Department and made into a space for all Norwalkers, and a bar is not suitable for a residential neighborhood.

Rowayton is residential and has two bars, Lisa Brinton said.  Brinton expressed support for a bar at Oak Hills, provided it closes at 10.

That was a consensus, with most people saying they approved of a bar, if it closes early.

“I don’t know it if a sit down bar is going to work, I don’t run the numbers,” Bob Pattacini said. “But I know that they deserve the chance that they need to pay the rent, OK?”

“Every other golf course around here is in a residential neighborhood,” Charlie Brennan said. “…it may not solve the problems but it will get people in there.”


Bob Welsh September 28, 2018 at 7:39 am

Donna: Thanks for commenting. A one-paragraph early version of this story was posted with a note that it would be updated. The update reflects the correct number of council members.

Piberman September 28, 2018 at 10:30 am

Imagine if the energies spent over the Oak Hills Bar were spent by our City Hiall in working to reduce City outlays and property taxes.

Teacher September 28, 2018 at 1:25 pm

The golf course is wonderful and under the direction of Ed and the new grounds keeper it has become a truly great course again. I welcome the bar and the revenue the restaurant will generate for the course.

Roger September 28, 2018 at 2:04 pm

The City is finally beginning to allow Oak Hills to do the right thing. It sounds like the OHPA has been operating with a noose around its neck for so long. It’s amazing volunteers would even want to spend time trying to make it better when they just keep getting beat down by politicians who block them at every step. It’s definitely a step in the right direction.

Paul Cantor September 28, 2018 at 2:24 pm

@ Lisa Brinton: Norwalk has a plethora of bars. All of them are run by private individuals. The city has no business directly or indirectly being in the restaurant business or directly or indirectly running a golf-course. Nevertheless, it set up the Oak Hills Authority as a gift to golfers. In other words, it contracted out management of the second largest public park in Norwalk to individuals representing the interest of golfers who wanted to avoid having to pay to play on private golf courses. The implicit contract it has with these golfers is: as long as user fees cover the its costs we shall allow you to establish a golf-course on the 144 acres of tax free publicly owned land. But if you can’t cover the costs the park will be turned over to Parks and Recreation and managed in the interest of all the stakeholders of Norwalk, most of whom do not play golf. Despite having received a $1.5 million and numerous loans on which it has defaulted the OHPA has never covered its costs and today is in greater financial difficulty than ever before. Revenue from leasing the restaurant will not solve its financial problems. Nor should revenues the city obtains from any source be used to subsidize a golf course. It is past time that the park be turned over to Recreation and Parks to be managed in the interests of all the stakeholders of Norwalk.

Paul Cantor September 28, 2018 at 2:37 pm

@ Teacher and Roger and Lisa Brinton: Independent of the question of whether the income from leasing the restaurant should be used to subsidize a golf-course instead of for more important purposes is the question of whether the city should allow a sit-down bar to be established in a residential neighborhood close by Fox Run and Kendal elementary schools and Ponus middle school. The answer to that question is, of course, no. No, if you are at all concerned about the safety of children and the residential quality of West Norwalk.

Roger September 28, 2018 at 4:59 pm

@Cantor: From what I am reading and hearing your are barking the same bark up the same tree, just as you have been for years. After a while, nobody hears the barking.
Face it. You lost your case. Move on.

Michael Foley September 28, 2018 at 9:14 pm

I see no issues with a sit down bar at the golf course as long as the normal hours of operations are around the 10pm time frame, I do realizes that if there is a private function at the facility the hours then would have to be adjusted, I do feel that there should be No Music allowed during normal operation of the bar. We do want the Golf course to succeed and the neighborhood be protected.

Stan Young September 29, 2018 at 7:38 am

I’m all for a bar but how does that fix the problem? Will they ever get over $110k rent they received years ago with the bigger building? now that they shrunk the restaurant size? They still owe last year and all of this years debt service. If they forgive the debt who will collect the rent ? City or Golf Course ? Is there a back room deal going on right now because they will need a lot more than their line of credit to get through this winter. Maybe they have to look at cutting expenses but apparently they could care less about the taxpayer as long as it has that country club look and feel. Their line of credit will not get them through until next spring! What happens around December maybe January when they cant make payroll ? Does anybody on the authority have a financial back ground ? Is it possible that the City council and financial experts don’t see it?

Lisa Brinton Thomson September 29, 2018 at 8:41 am

I believe Oak Hills Park is a Norwalk gem, (like so many of our other parks) and there are a variety of recreational purposes besides golf. I play tennis and have been on one of the teams for years. I do believe there needs to be some re-examination of how the place is run and marketed.

However, years ago, a decision was made to build a very large and expensive building with a restaurant in it. The debt on that building needs to be serviced and most nice and successful restaurants have a sit down bar. Rowayton’s neighborhood has two. We also have an elementary school and several pre-schools.

Though before my time, I appreciate some of the stories regarding the ‘roudiness’ of the old bar – but my understanding is that was when the drinking age was 18 and serving a different clientele. Times have changed.

The debt on the building needs to be serviced and good restaurants (not to mention ones located in a recreational setting) should be allowed a bar for those folks who come in to watch a sports game and chat, but don’t want a sit down meal.

I’m sorry that we disagree on that topic. However, I think we agree that Oak Hills should be marketed for more than just golf!

Debora Goldstein September 29, 2018 at 10:28 am

Oak Hills had that debt before the restaurant was built. They received a $1.2mm infusion of state money, courtesy of the bond commission a couple of years ago, which they poured into improvements.

They are capped on what they can charge, but continue to manage the Golf Course to a higher standard than they can afford.

The lease allows them to keep any revenue from fundraising out of the calculations for the “rent” to the City.

They make very little effort to use the grounds to bring in revenue in the winter months. Some have suggested snow-shoeing or cross country type skiing in the winter months.

They can also follow the leads of some world class botanical gardens who do beautiful winter holiday events to draw in revenue in off-peak seasons.



I doubt very much a bar in the restaurant is going to change the dynamic very much when it already serves alcohol.

Establishing the park as a year-round regional destination for all of its activities (golf, walking trails, ???,) will.

Stan Young September 29, 2018 at 10:34 am

I agree Oak Hills is an asset to the town but the focus on the building is not solving anything. They’ve consumed so much energy on how the restaurant is the problem for years and years that they completely let the management of expenses get away from them. All the Authority does is pat themselves on the back at how great it looks and how much the golfers love it (if it looks so great and golfers love it so much why aren’t there more players). If you look at their financials at the end of August they had about 8K in the bank but a pat on the back of how they paid off their line of credit. Hello unless they have a 500k credit line be prepared for this group to be ready for another hand out for the upcoming winter season, but the powers to be will say “look how great the place looks” In the end the city will have to forgive the debt and hopefully collect the rent but knowing the Authority they’ll want their cake and eat it too trying to collect the rent. They paid no debt this year collected no rent this year a wash and have 8k in the bank. The restaurant is the least of their problems but they can’t let it go and focus on the real problems the EXPENSES!

I’m all for the bar.

Lisa Brinton Thomson September 29, 2018 at 11:04 am

Stan, I haven’t see the OHPA financials, but I hear you and instinctively do not disagree with your statements.

Bill McFarland September 29, 2018 at 11:08 am

According to the latest (August 2018) Oak Hills Park Authority financial statement found online at the City of Norwalk website attached to the Board of Estimate agenda. The fine job that the Oak Hills Park Authority has been doing operating the park and keeping their expenses in check has resulted with them have les then $10K in the bank. So think about it, 140+ acres to maintain, insurance to pay, a staff of probably 30* and over $250K now owed to the taxpayers on a debt which has been restructured numerous times (which is about to be forgiven) and gong into a long cold winter where golf will not be played. Should the OHPA be concerned right now about a bar in the restaurant or how they will be paying the employees in a few short weeks WITHOUT ANOTHER BAILOUT FROM THE NORWALK TAXPAYERS!

EnoPride September 29, 2018 at 7:29 pm

How great would it be if a layout like Waveny in New Canaan could be financed/developed at Oak Hills? Or Oak Hills could be an affordable recreation complex of sorts for families. I understand these type of developments cost $$$, but Norwalk is devoid of this type of community recreational land use, and many people are in situations of having to join a Waveny or other community’s town pool since Ascension no longer exists. Waveny tries real hard to discourage membership of out of towners. People are priced out of Shore and Country. I remember Lisa mentioning Waveny as an inspiration a while back. A decent pool, tennis courts, etc. An affordable resident fee could be charged to families, and pool or pools if well done could host swim meets and possibly make money that way to offset cost of maintenance. A YMCA like Westport/Wilton has would be great too, but I suppose that may never happen.

Yvonne Lopaur September 30, 2018 at 9:03 am

@Bill McFarland I agree.

Over and over again the money from taxpayers flows to OHPA. OHPA does not pay their debt and there is no expectation that they will, but City officials are still ready to bail them out. In private corporations that would not be tolerated.
So the question is “What can Norwalk taxpayers do to stop another bailout?”

Paul Cantor September 30, 2018 at 10:53 am

@EnoPride. I agree with you. I would only add that a public park near the heart of the city would make Norwalk a more attractive place to live and by doing so increase property values and hence tax revenues. So, in all likelihood it would pay for itself. But let’s just do a quick back of the envelope cost/benefit analysis of converting the 18-hole golf course back into a genuine park. The cost would be borne by golfers who would then have to pay to play on private courses where their rounds would no longer be subsidized by taxpayers. The benefit to all city taxpayers would come from being able to enjoy the advantages of a public park near the heart of their city while no longer having to cover the difference between the costs of operating and maintaining the golf course and the user fees paid by golfers. Those costs have mounted year after year to the point that, despite receiving a $1.5 million grant and millions of dollars of subsidized loans from taxpayers, the Oak Hills Authority today is in worse financial shape than ever. Hence, it is asking the city to forgive the loans it received from taxpayers and then had restructured again and again. In short, maintenance of a public park with all its many benefits to all the stakeholders of the city including golfers would not cost as much as a golf course that benefits golfers alone and, in addition, requires harmful chemicals to maintain its greens (https://www.nancyonnorwalk.com/2014/02/letter-hazardous-chemicals-among-reasons-oak-hills-should-shrink/). As you mentioned, Wavenly Park in New Canaan provides a model of what a public park should look like. http://www.newcanaan.info/content/9492/9224/665/1525.aspx There is a field in Wavenly that has been set aside for golfers to practice their swing. But there are also 3.5 miles of jogging and walking trails, ball fields, a dog park, picnic areas, platform tennis courts, a swimming pool, am arts center and more. And unlike the golf course that requires harmful chemicals to maintain its greens, no harmful chemicals are needed to maintain the fields in a public park. And New Canaan does not have a tax payer subsidized golf course. Therefore, golfers from New Canaan often end up playing at Oak Hills on the Norwalk taxpayer’s dime.

EnoPride September 30, 2018 at 5:23 pm

@Paul Cantor… My husband played from time to time at Oak Hills and mentioned that he had quite often been grouped with New Canaan residents and out of towners. He had asked why they choose to come to play at Oak Hills, and their answer of course was always that they are priced out of the private clubs in their communities, so they come to Oak Hills. Like you mentioned, we are providing recreation and our taxpayer dollars for out of towners who want to play golf on the cheap essentially. I would be curious to analyze the ratio of Norwalk golfers to out of towners who go there regularly. Curious because a high concentration of out of towners may not be patronizing a restaurant/bar so much because they come solely to play and then go back home to their families and to their own restaurants in their own towns. They are paying for the golf course but not so much for the restaurant service. They are giving their money to their own town restaurants/bars. I would think this would impact the sustainability and profitability of the restaurant.

New Canaan’s Waveny community is not so welcoming of our community the other way around, as they jacked up the out of town membership fee to keep us out and to make a profit on out of towners in doing so. Made a big stink of it with their town officials I recall years back. A friend of mine was a member at the time, and the unwelcoming vibe put her off eventually. I even considered Waveny because we have nothing of the sort here, but was very put off by the exclusivity. I thought, a club like that is a missed opportunity here in Norwalk. I know so many families who would be on board for a Norwalk version. Has Norwalk ever had dialogue at a meeting about what would it take to sustain a solid recreational complex business model for Oak Hills? Has the concept ever been proposed? The demand is here with Norwalkers. Can Norwalk supply the demand in the future?

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