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Norwalk Oak Hills Authority presses for ‘marginally profitable’ driving range

Norwalk Finance Director Bob Barron, left, expresses his opinions to Oak Hills Park Authority Chairman Ernie DesRochers, right, in the City Hall Council chambers after Thursday's Common Council Finance Committee meeting. Watching are OHPA member Bill Waters and Oak Hills Park Executive Director Shelley Guyer.
Norwalk Finance Director Bob Barron, left, expresses his opinions to Oak Hills Park Authority Chairman Ernie DesRochers, right, in the City Hall Council chambers after Thursday’s Common Council Finance Committee meeting. Watching are OHPA member Bill Waters and Oak Hills Park Executive Director Shelley Guyer.

NORWALK, Conn. — Appearances to the contrary, Oak Hills Park Authority members would like Norwalk to bond the construction of a driving range – this year.

Although Director of Management and Budgets Bob Barron said at Thursday’s Common Council Finance Committee meeting that the Authority had missed the deadline to put in a capital budget request for a driving range, Authority members said they had sent in an email two days ahead of time. Authority Chairman Ernie DesRochers argued for the range, casting aspersions on the “generally OK” independent feasibility study done by the National Golf Foundation and saying a site survey needs to be done.

This led to some angry words being exchanged between Barron and Desrochers on the steps in the Council chambers after the meeting adjourned.

Barron said he had been thrown under the bus in public.

“You know what I didn’t stand up there and say? How many times … (you) said, ‘If this report says this thing isn’t going to make money I’ll be the first one to shut up.’ But you haven’t shut up. You’re still proposing something that is marginally profitable, to the tune of $2 to $3 million dollars. So if you want to throw me under the bus, I’ll be happy to trade punches with you.”

They went into the hallway to continue their discussion.

The committee first listened to Barron summarize the study that was delivered by Richard Singer of the National Golf Foundation in December.

Barron quoted Singer as saying the driving range as planned would be “incredibly expensive” to build in the spot selected by OHPA.

“He also had some concerns on whether it would fit,” Barron said. “… He talked to one of the architects, the one that I think was involved with the original master plan; he says, ‘You’re right, I don’t think it will work,’ but the new architect, the one that was engaged to actually help build the driving range, thought it would fit.”

“My recommendation is you go out and you find out whether it will fit and if there are any alternative locations where you can bring the developmental costs down,” Barron said.

But OHPA had not filed a driving range request for the 2016-17 capital budget, Barron said.

“I am making my recommendation by Feb. 1 on what the capital budget can be. I cannot add a project that was not requested of me,” Barron said. “The mayor is the only one that can add a project that was not requested by a department head.”

Mayor Harry Rilling had been at the meeting but left. Asked by NancyOnNorwalk about this comment by email, he replied, “After reviewing the consultant’s report, I have several questions that need to be answered before I can make an informed decision.”

During the meeting, DesRochers said he thought Singer had erred to the conservative side when it came to potential profits.

“Building it without lights, when your chief competitor has lights, is almost a complete waste of time, I would think, because you need to meet the competition in order to be successful,” DesRochers said.

There’s a “huge disagreement” between Singer and the “original architect who laid it out” DesRochers said, necessitating a survey, which OHPA would pay for, DesRochers said.

“It’s tight, but it fits. It doesn’t lay out the same way that people have made an argument about,” DesRochers said.

He continued:

  • “We tried to locate it to placate the entire community. Maybe that was our mistake, but we tried to put it in an area that would have minimal impact on surrounding property owners. Closest house was 1,000 feet away. When it was originally planned, which would have been the cheapest alternative, it was planned on 16 and 17. Obviously that created a lot of issues for people because that was too close to houses. It was put behind the restaurant. That didn’t work because people were upset about its locations to houses and the fact that there were walking trails back there. So I think as an Authority we have tried to do everything to placate everybody, to put it in a location that makes sense.”
  • “I think the amenity it provides the park, and what it does for Oak Hills in terms of taking it to a level that no one even thought of five years ago, is pretty amazing. What you would have is probably one of the best municipal golf courses in state of Connecticut.”
  • “You are still going to have 50-60-70-80,000 people a year using a driving range. We put turf football fields in, $1.5 million or $2 million a clip, and they’re generally not open to public. They’re generally open to select group of students and athletes in which the bill is entirely footed by the taxpayers.”

Lights on the course would be state-of-the-art LED bulbs, pointing down, DesRochers said, in answer to questions from the committee. “There’s no kind of leaking out of the lights, so you’d never see it,” he said.

Singer’s report didn’t recognize the “really novel design,” which includes “using the rock they would mine out of there as the base for what they would put in,” DesRochers said.

Norwalk Common Councilman John Igneri (D-District E) listens to Oak Hills Park Authority Chairman Ernie DesRochers during Thursday's Council Finance Committee meeting.
Norwalk Common Councilman John Igneri (D-District E) listens to Oak Hills Park Authority Chairman Ernie DesRochers during Thursday’s Council Finance Committee meeting.

 

Councilman John Igneri (D-District E) asked if Oak Hills was proposing something, and DesRochers repeated his criticisms of the study. Igneri asked again, and DesRochers said a capital budget request had been sent in.

“I know we did because I was copied on the email that Mr. Shelley Guyer sent out, and it was way before it was due,” DesRochers said.

Guyer said it was sent two days ahead of the Dec. 7 deadline.

“This is the first I am hearing of that, but I am happy to check our files,” Barron said.

“I know we sent it. We would like to proceed with it,” DesRochers said.

Igneri asked if Oak Hills would make adjustments to its plans.

“We have to have site surveyed to make sure it fits on it,” DesRochers said.

The Authority had worked on the assumption that the people who drew the plan up knew what they were doing, DesRochers said.

“One is a golf course architect, the other is a landscape architect, so I figure the two of them figured it out,” DesRochers said. “But you are right, we don’t have a surveyor. But one of the things we are looking to do is hire a surveyor and make sure it fits out there.”

The Authority is “well under way” on using the $1.5 million grant from the state, with plans to start work on the nature center in June, DesRochers said.

Finance Committee Chairman Bruce Kimmel (D-At Large) asked DesRochers if the Authority has a Plan B.

Desrochers talked about how well Stamford’s driving range has done and the interest millennials have in practicing for sports.

“Barring that, how do you achieve a least part of that goal?” Kimmel pressed.

“We have had some discussions on what we would do, definitely. … We could figure something out, but I think from the same standpoint, too, I think our approach has been from day one if you are going to do something you do it right,” DesRochers said. “That’s what we are trying to do.”

“Fair enough,” Kimmel said. “The discussion will continue, I am sure. I have no problem with that.”

Comments

11 responses to “Norwalk Oak Hills Authority presses for ‘marginally profitable’ driving range”

  1. Jim Perkins

    Possibly marginally profitable…won’t fit…extremely expensive to build …

    Move on Mr. Derocheres

  2. Bruce Kimmel

    The Authority did in fact send in their capital budget request on time. Their email was discovered after the meeting. I assume the Authority’s capital request will now be included in the 16-17 capital budget. Thus, the discussion of the report and the driving range will continue. I should note that a request is just that; it does not imply acceptance or rejection.

  3. Jim Perkins

    Amazing, so Mr. Barron, a hired expert professional by the City does not think it’s a good idea and says “You’re still proposing something that is marginally profitable, to the tune of $2 to $3 million dollars” and the expert consultant hired by the Oak Hills Park Authority does not think it will fit or be that profitable BUT Mr. Derocheres an appointed member of the OHPA with absolutely no experience in the golf or driving range business thinks it will work so lets give them 3 million dollars of taxpayer funds anyway.

    Can the Common Council possibly agree?

  4. Paul Cantor

    As Mr. Perkins indicates, Mr. DesRochers continues to maintain that a driving range in Oak Hills Park will be profitable despite all the evidence to the contrary. If it was clear that a driving range in Oak Hills Park would be as profitable as Mr. DesRochers claims the Oak Hills Park Authority would have had no trouble obtaining a loan from the private sector to construct it. But the OHPA tried and failed to get private sector funding for the driving range.

    Now add to that fact the recently published National Golf Foundation study which indicates that for a driving range in Oak Hills Park to have any chance of earning enough to pay for the cost of its construction it would have to be operated with lights late into the night.

    But the OHPA promised time and again that since Oak Hills Park is in a residential neighborhood its proposed driving range would not be operated at night. Here for example is how it answered questions put to it when it sought proposals and funding from the private sector to construct a driving range in the park (www.norwalkct.org/documentcenter/view/4409):

    Question: Please confirm whether or not the overhead lighting of the golf practice range facility will be permitted? Response: No overhead lighting will be permitted except as required by the building code of the city. (Example, parking, safety lighting, etc.)

    Question: Might the OHPA agree to extend the hours of operation for the practice range in the future? Response: No. All City parks are open dawn-to-dusk.

    Question: Alternatively, might the OHPA enable the practice range to operate in the evening by extending the hours of operation for Oak Hills into the evening? Response: No. All City parks are open dawn-to-dusk.

    Question: Might the practice range ever be permitted to operate past dusk? Response: No. All City parks are open dawn-to-dusk.

    Question: Will the operator of the practice range at any point be permitted to construct lights that will enable it to operate past dusk? Response: No. All City parks are open dawn-to-dusk.

    The $21,000 National Golf Foundation Study pointed out, furthermore, that even if a driving range in Oak Hills was operated at night it would suffer from:
    • a lack of accessibility to and visibility from major roadways,
    • significant rock outcroppings that would add to the cost of its construction,
    • the well documented decrease in demand to play golf,
    • and competition from the more conveniently located Sterling Farms driving range in Stamford.

    In short even if the Common Council allowed the OHPA to go back on its word and construct a driving range that would be operated with lights at night in a manner that would further undermine the residential quality of the West Norwalk neighborhood in which Oak Hills Park is situated it is unlikely that driving range would ever earn enough to pay back the cost of constructing it.

    With that in mind not only should the Common Council turn down the OHPA’s request for a loan to construct the driving range. It should mandate that not one dime of the $1,500,000 taxpayer grant the Authority received to make improvements to the park should be used to demolish the pro shop and cart barn or make any other changes for the purpose of making room for a driving range.

  5. cc-rider

    Paul- why do you insist on claiming that they tried to find funding in the private sector????? Yes or no- did Oak Hills go to a bank and try to get a loan to fund a driving range? No they did not. Done.

  6. McKeen Shanogg

    The feasibility study apparently didn’t resolve this long-simmering debate. Should they or shouldn’t they? We still don’t really know.

  7. Yvonne Lopaur

    As head of the Oak Hills Park Authority’s driving range committee and chairman of the Authority Mr. DesRochers has long been leading the charge to construct a large commercial driving range in the park. Hence, he was instrumental in selecting Total Driving Range Solutions (TDRS), a firm that never before constructed a driving range and that recently changed its name to Golf Design Unlimited, to come up with a Master Plan for Oak Hills Park whose centerpiece was the 36-bay boondoggle he now wants taxpayers to loan the Authority four million dollars to construct. “The TDRS team helped us define the opportunity at our facility,” demonstrating “skills and professionalism throughout the Master Plan processes” DesRochers wrote.

    Now his statement (see the article above) that the Authority worked on the assumption that the people who drew up the Master Plan knew what they were doing indicates that he realizes he was mistaken about TDRS’ “skills and professionalism.” Nevertheless, despite all the evidence that TDRS was wrong about the feasibility of constructing a driving range in the site selected for it and despite all the evidence that a driving range in Oak Hills Park would be a financial disaster and despite his promise to give up pursuing a loan to construct it if the $21,000 study it paid the National Golf Foundation to come up with didn’t indicate it would be a sure fire success he is continuing to seek millions of dollars in the form of a taxpayer subsidized loan to construct it.

    And unfortunately our elected officials continue to lend him a sympathetic ear.

    It is long past time to put an end to the OHPA’s driving range charade. Oak Hills Park is situated in a residential neighborhood. A large commercial driving range does not belong in a residential neighborhood. And a money-losing driving range is no more something that taxpayers should be called on to fund than a money-losing 18-hole golf course that turns the one thing Norwalk sorely lacks, a multi-use public park near the heart of the city, into a subsidized playground for a minority of mostly white adult relatively well off minority of mostly male golfers.

  8. Paul Cantor

    @cc-rider

    If you are right that the OHPA did not attempt to get a loan from the private sector for the driving range the question is: “Why not?” If, as Mr. Desrochers claims the driving range would be a sure fire money winner there is not need for the OHPA to seek a loan from taxpayers to construct it. In fact Mr. Desrochers has often said he could obtain a loan from the private sector for the driving range.

    And he also has frequently referred to the municipal golf course he oversees as a business. If it is a business it is a badly managed government run money-losing business that has already cost taxpayers millions of dollars. Furthermore, if it is a business it is a business that competes with private sector golf courses and thereby undermines their efforts to survive. Hence it is a disservice to taxpayers and a disservice to serious golfers willing to pay the cost of playing the game they enjoy most. It is however a gift to less serious golfers unwilling to pay the real cost of playing 18 rounds of golf.

    Here again is how one individual, Raymond J. Keating, so cogently put it:

    “In the end, there is no justification whatsoever for government involvement in the golf business. Even if one subscribes to the idea of market failure, certainly none of the criteria for such failure—i.e., monopoly, public goods, external costs, or inadequate information—exist in the case of golf courses. The only reasons for the existence of government golf courses are patronage (another opportunity for politicians to dole out jobs), special-interest pressures (some golfers want cheap golf, courtesy of the taxpayers), and government revenue (politicians believe they can make money with golf facilities).”

  9. Tom Reynolds

    If you guys actually read the NGF study it said a driving range WILL BE profitable. But only if the full-featured version were built. Anything less would not work. Furthermore, the study said it “has concerns” whether the 36-bay range could fit. It DID NOT say it WOULD NOT fit. Perhaps getting a surveyor to look at it may help. I don’t think the NGF is in the survey business. It appears when that when you guys read something you only get out of it what you want.

  10. Jim Perkins

    Hired expert saying it most likely won’t fit and if it somehow does will only be marginally profitable or the no experience OHPA and the never built one before company they hired to design it and claim it will make millions and got no problem….

    Let’s see, who shall we believe?

  11. Paul Cantor

    PARSING MR. DESROCHERS REMARKS:

    “We tried to locate it to placate the entire community.“

    The “it” referred to is a large commercial 36-bay driving range not the kind of practice range that satisfies the needs of most golfers and that exists at most other private and public courses

    “Maybe that was our mistake, but we tried to put it in an area that would have minimal impact on surrounding property owners.”

    The mistake was to attempt to “locate” a large commercial driving range in a park in a residential neighborhood. That was a mistake from both the point of view of golfers and taxpayers.

    As a careful reading of the National Golf Foundation $21,000 study makes clear there is not enough room in Oak Hills Park to accommodate a large commercial driving range and an 18-hole golf course. Parking, for one thing, would be a problem. And the driving range would interfere with play on the course.

    “DesRochers said he thought Singer had erred to the conservative side when it came to potential profits.”

    Mr. Singer, was paid to come up with a study that would support Mr. Desrochers and the Authority he heads’ contention that a large commercial driving range in Oak Hills Park would be profitable. But The National Golf Foundation’s analyst quickly realized that the chances of a large commercial driving range in Oak Hills Park ever covering the cost of its construction were iffy at best.

    Therefore, in order not to sully his and the NGF’s reputation he hedged his bets by concluding that if the Authority can find a way to lower the cost of constructing the driving range; and if after it is constructed it is allowed to operate with lights late into the night; and if extra parking can be found to accommodate golfers, restaurant and driving range patrons; and if the residential streets leading to the park can be made to handle a great deal of additional traffic the proposed driving range may be able to cover the cost of its construction.

    “I think the amenity it provides the park, and what it does for Oak Hills in terms of taking it to a level that no one even thought of five years ago, is pretty amazing. What you would have is probably one of the best municipal golf courses in state of Connecticut. You are still going to have 50-60-70-80,000 people a year using a driving range.”

    This is pie in the sky speculation from an individual who has no experience designing or managing golf courses or driving ranges. And it completely ignores the well-documented decrease in the demand to play golf. As the December 14, 2014 issue of The Economist pointed out, for example, “Last year around 25m people played golf, 18% fewer than did so in 2006, although the population grew by 6%. Although still played by men and women, including businesspeople hoping to bond over more than lunch, golf does not hold the same appeal for the young and minorities, groups that will determine its future health. In recent years more people have abandoned than taken up the game.” And this from an article in the New York Times less than two months ago: “There are about four million fewer players in the United States than there were a decade ago, according to the National Golf Foundation. Almost 650 18-hole golf courses have closed since 2006, the group says. In 2013 alone, 158 golf courses closed and just 14 opened, the eighth consecutive year that closures outpaced openings. Between 130 and 160 courses are closing every 12 months, a trend that the foundation predicts will continue “for the next few years.”

    Desrochers talked about…the interest millennials have in practicing for sports.

    But according to the Wall Street Journal, “A drop in participation rates and disinterest among young people, particularly millennials, have sent both the retail and sporting ends of the business scrambling for a new strategy.” And this from Forbes: “So, why don’t millennials play golf? Golf is too time consuming Millennials value ease, speed and efficiency in their endeavors…4+ hours essentially doing the same thing over and over is against the idea of Speed and efficiency…Millennials are the most inclusive generation. They want to share their experiences with as many friends as possible. Golf says, ‘All of you can play, as long as it’s no more than four.’”

    “The Authority had worked on the assumption that the people who drew the plan up knew what they were doing,” DesRochers said. “One is a golf course architect, the other is a landscape architect, so I figure the two of them figured it out.”

    The assumption that the employees of a firm that never designed or constructed a large commercial driving range before would know what they were doing does not say a great deal about Mr. Desrochers or other members of the Authority’s business acumen. But they are not playing with their own money. They are playing with Norwalk taxpayers’ money. No doubt if it was their own money that was being put into play they’d be a good deal more concerned about how it should be spent.

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