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Norwalk man asks questions of Oak Hills Park Authority

A vista at Oak Hills Park golf course in Norwalk.

 

By Paul Cantor

NORWALK, Conn. – Paul Cantor took the floor much longer than expected at a Norwalk meeting last week, asking question after question of the Oak Hills Park Authority as other people gave him the time they had signed up for so he could continue. Cantor said the questions might help the authority members understand why West Norwalk residents had fought a proposal to construct a driving range in the past and would fight again. “Hopefully you will abandon the effort to build a driving range and seek to manage the golf course so it is sustainable with the income it receives from the green and other fees related to playing on it,” he said.

Here are his questions:

 Regarding your mandate

  • Is your mandate to run Oak Hills Park in the interest of a small subset of Norwalk taxpayers who play golf, rather than the citizens of Norwalk, most of who do not play golf?
  • In his letter to the Hour, OHPA Chairman Bob Virgulak said, “Oak Hills was never intended to be a park: it was constructed to be a golf course.” Are taxpayers wrong therefore when they maintain Oak Hills is a park owned by them in which a golf course has been constructed?”
  • A 1999 master plan for Oak Hills called for “wider uses for the park” and recommended a practice range, nature and fitness trails, an ice skating rink, bocce courts, cross country skiing trails and more. Whatever happened to the nature and fitness trails, ice skating rink, etc.?
  • What percentage of Oak Hills Park is accessible on a regular basis to people that do not play golf?
  • How did the master plan’s concept of a small practice range where golfers can warm up before a round morph into your proposal for a double-decker driving range large enough to subsidize the golf course?

Regarding procedure

  • If you don’t drop the proposal for a driving range what is the procedure you intend to follow in moving ahead with it?
  • What is the reason you invited Jim Downing of Total Driving Range Solutions and no one else to address the authority about plans for a driving range?
  • Does any member of the authority have a personal or business relationship with Mr. Downing or his company? If so, what is that relationship?
  • Is transparency important to you? Specifically, do you think it is important to allow all of the taxpayers of Norwalk to have a say regarding your plans to go ahead with major changes to the park, such as the construction of a new driving range?

Regarding costs and benefits

  • Is it because of the mismanagement or lack of demand or a combination of both that Oak Hills Golf course has not been able to generate enough income to cover its operating costs and service the $3 million loan it received from the taxpayers of Norwalk?
  • Do you think the best use for the income generated from leasing land in Oak Hills Park to a privately owned enterprise is to subsidize the golf course?
  • Do you recognize the conflict of interest between 1.) your desire for a driving range that generates enough income to enable its owner to earn a profit after paying you a substantial amount of money to lease the land where it is situated and 2.) the desire of people in West Norwalk to maintain the residential quality of their neighborhood?
  • What guarantees can you give the taxpayers of Norwalk and in particular the residents of West Norwalk that once a driving range is built you won’t give in to requests to expand it, add lights to it and operate it late into the night?
  • Do you think that after taxpayers have gifted golfers tax-free land on which to construct a course they then have an obligation to provide those same golfers with regular additional subsidies to maintain and upgrade the course?
  • Alternatively, if golfers balk at paying playing fees high enough to generate the income needed to maintain the course is that an argument for finding some other means to subsidize it, for asking taxpayers to foot part of the bill, or for returning the land to the city to be used for conservation purposes and other activities appropriate for a public park?

Regarding the restaurant

  • Has the rent you received from leasing the restaurant building been sufficient to service the loan you took out to build it?
  • Is the rent you are receiving now sufficient to service the loan you took out to build it?
  • Is the rent you expect to receive in the future sufficient to service the loan you took out to build it?
  • How much money do you need to receive on a yearly basis to make the golf course financially solvent?
  • How much rent do you expect to receive by leasing the land next to the restaurant for a driving range?

 

 

Comments

6 responses to “Norwalk man asks questions of Oak Hills Park Authority”

  1. Deemooo

    I find the first question (which “tees up” a few of the follow-ons) to be ridiculous and not very clever. Might as well ask the following:
    * I don’t have a boat, but I like to picnic and paint. So why can’t I set up my easel and picnic on the boat slip in Veteran’s Park? And why is the city maintaining boat access for a small subset of Norwalkers?
    * I don’t like sunbathing or swimming at the beach. So why does the city maintain a beach when not all Norwalkers like going to the beach?
    * I am middle-aged so I can’t take full advantage of city services for seniors, including home heating oil rebates. Not all Norwalkers are seniors, so why is the city maintaining policies, facilities, and programs for this subset of Norwalkers?
    * I am a property tax payer with no children and not all Norwalkers have children. So why is the city making me pay for schools?
    * I don’t play baseball/softball, but I note that the city maintains a slew of baseball/softball fields. Why is the city maintaining sports fields dedicated to this particular clique?
    * I live in a residential neighborhood where driving is a must. But I see the city has installed sidewalks on many streets and I don’t use them. Why?

    Anyhow, you get the idea. I guess it’s fun to pretend that golfers are some sort of “1%” that are pulling a fast one on the city, and that the city is mistaken in offering all sorts of programs, services, and facilities that – when taken together – appeal to all sorts of Norwalkers and improve everyone’s quality of life.

  2. Diane C2

    @deemooo- I think you misread or misunderstood Mr. Cantor’s question – he was asking if it was the Oak Hill Park Authority’s mandate to run the park primarily in the interest of the golfers, a very different issue than that of your analogies. For example, in regards to the beach, the recs and parks department provides life guards, umbrellas and other amenities for swimmers, but realizes the beach is for use & enjoyment by a diverse population, and therefore offers sports courts, skate park, picnic areas, a snack bar, summer concerts, car shows, baseball and softball tournaments, charity walks and events, summer movies, etc.
    For each of the questions you posed, you can answer your own question in that the city isn’t providing a single service at the expense of another, whereas Oak Hills has apparently forsaken all other park activities (except tennis courts) for the benefit of the golfers.

    1. Deemooo

      I’ve considered what you’ve said, and I don’t think it holds water.

      Using your example, I could counter that it’s unfair the city hasn’t put tennis courts or a golf course at the beach. You said that, “the city isn’t providing a single service at the expense of another” — so where is my golf? And why are there bocce/lawn bowling courts? And a skate park? We have a whole park across the street from the beach dedicated to dogs running (and “evacuating”) off leash! Aren’t all of these things sort of specialized?

      Every space in every park (large and small) could be used for something someone else wants, but reason dictates that you do your best to provide something for everyone somewhere in the park system (but not at EVERY location). Your “diverse population” has options all over the city.

      A few years back, there was a discussion about putting baseball fields at Cranbury Park. Does the fact that they didn’t move forward mean that Cranbury Park doesn’t serve a diverse population? There’s a lot of property there and numerous additional activities could be accommodated. And whatever long list of activities you reply with for Cranbury can be countered easily with a list ten-fold as long of common activities that are not accommodated at Cranbury. But so what?

      A golf course requires a large parcel and requires specialized grasses/landscaping. That’s why Oak Hills was designed and built on that specific large parcel, and that’s why the golf course is for golf only. It’s a park in the sense that it’s public and the land is city owned. But just because the word “park” is in the name doesn’t mean that the city’s should start erecting tetherball courts and warning golfers to beware of the dog walkers in the middle of the fairway…

      1. Deemooo

        I can’t edit, so I’ll add that Mr. Cantor’s question is answered in the city charter (though :

        ARTICLE I, Oak Hills Park Authority [Adopted 2-25-1997]
        § 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.
        B.The Oak Hills Park Authority is created for the purposes stated in Section 7-130a(d) as they relate specifically to public golf courses, including restaurants and driving range and the maintenance and protection of the Oak Hills Park. Nothing herein shall preclude the Authority from providing for other forms of public recreation listed in such Subsection (d) on any land which may be acquired for the primary purpose of golf, and the Authority shall seek to maximize the recreation and park use of Oak Hills Park.

  3. Suzanne

    Deemooo and Diane – I think Mr. Cantor asked some good questions subsequently supplemented by some of what “D” had to say. However, I maintain that a driving range is an amenity unneeded at Oak Hills Park first, as a golfer who enjoys the game and plays golf without a range but, more importantly, as a citizen of Norwalk who, after reviewing several statements by the current Authority including articles and letters to the editor by the former golf professional of Oak Hills, asks that a responsible outside audit take place of both the financials and management of this money-losing course.

    A good business, run well, just doesn’t throw money or resources (that would include the significant destruction of land, according to Mr.Tully, architect, in order to achieve the driving range proposed at the location cited), at a money-losing proposition until they know where every penny is being spent and how management decisions are being made.

    This single vendor presented to build the range is also suspect and certainly not in keeping with best business practices which would require generating a detailed request for proposals and getting in return at least three for careful evaluation.

    This is nuts and bolts stuff that may or may not cover Mr. Cantor’s questions above but, I believe, need to be addressed before any new projects at the Oak Hills site moves forward especially after reading of significant missteps by this Authority in 2011-12 in investing in a money-losing restaurant, closing the course during potentially lucrative periods and not paying back a significant loan from the City of Norwalk (read taxpayers) for these ventures.

    Why should we now believe that this additional amenity (again requiring a lot of blasting and forest destruction) will make money for the course when we don’t know how the Authority is handling our money in the first place? I would venture to guess Deemooo that you would not spend your money at such an establishment if you knew you money was being mishandled, misspent or being wasted.

    I say, again, forget the driving range. Find out what the heck this Authority is doing that is making what should be a money-making venture into a noose around the City of Norwalk (taxpayers’) necks.

    1. Deemooo

      I’m not entirely happy with things the last ten years or so. Fair or not, I’ve heard people griping about “Joke Hills” for years and these are the big reasons:

      * Course conditions can be very inconsistent

      * For years there was no restaurant/bar, and then we get an overly-formal Italian joint with no proper bar (nice place to bring a date, but not your golfing buddies after a five-hour round in the July heat).

      * FWIW, most everyone I play with would prefer to hit a bucket before their round. A bucket is part of their pregame warm-up/ritual.

      My gut says that without a range, it will be very difficult for a pro to establish himself and his business. A modern muni offers a practice range, lessons on that range with an affable pro, a decent pro shop, and a proper grill/bar for socializing.

      We have an enjoyable course in a great location and reasonable greens fees — and no other part of a solid business plan.

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