By Nancy Guenther Chapman
NORWALK, Conn. – A debate raged in the low point of a West Norwalk tree stand Saturday morning, a spot where members of the Oak Hills Park Authority hope that golf balls will be landing by the end of the summer.
“We talk about the greatest good for the greatest number – there are more people that would benefit from this kind of experience than from a driving range,” said Bill Wrenn of the walk in the woods behind the restaurant at Oak Hills.
“People who are not interested in walks won’t find that argument compelling for anything,” replied George Wolfe, a “tag-along” on the walk.
The proposal to build a driving range at Oak Hills had inspired a debate that has many passionate voices on both sides.
“A golf course isn’t a golf course if it doesn’t have a range,” said Tyler Lower, a Class A PGA professional, at last week’s meeting of the Oak Hills Park Authority. “That’s one thing I stress as an instructor: It’s not easy, it’s a tough game, go ahead and take a few swings and warm up there.”
Lower, a Norwalk resident, expressed confidence that the course can move ahead with an energetic new golf pro and “highly trained staff coming in with lots of gusto.”
Connor O’Brien, a Brien McMahon High School sophomore, said he had played at Oak Hills since he was 4 or 5, and hoped to continue. “I’ve played a lot of golf at a lot of different golf courses,” he said. “What really makes a facility great is both a quality golf course and a high quality driving range facility at which players can hone their skills.”
Every public course in the area has a driving range except Oak Hills, Connor said, adding, “I get concerned when the loud voices of a few clog the airwaves with misinformation and hostile rhetoric that inhibits the success of Oak Hills and puts the taxpayers they are so eager to protect at greater risk for loss.”
Similar comments were made in the woods Saturday by some of those “loud voices.”
“They’re a small, vocal minority in the community, and the majority of taxpayers don’t pay attention,” said Paul Cantor, a vocal opponent of the range, who points out that only 10 percent of Norwalk residents play golf. Parks should benefit everyone, he said. “If you can cover the operating costs then there’s some benefit to it. But if you can’t even cover the operating costs then we should say no, we’ll turn it into a park.”
Challenged by Wolfe to come up with an economic argument against the range, Cantor talked about the law of supply and demand.
Public golf courses across the country are struggling because the demand has shifted, Cantor and others said, using an article written by golf great Jack Nicklaus to buttress their argument.
Nicklaus recommends that public golf courses drop to 12 holes, because people’s habits have changed. Cantor and others said it is no fluke that Oak Hills is struggling. People are too busy these days to play 18 holes of golf, they said.
If Oak Hills dropped to a 9- or 12-hole course, there would be room to build a driving range on land that has already been flattened, they said, as opposed to the woods behind the restaurant, which will require expensive blasting for leveling.
Oak Hills Authority members have the evidence right in front of them and aren’t seeing it, they said.
At last week’s meeting, Executive Director Shelly Guyer gave a report on 2012 income. He said, “Nine-hole play, strange as it may seem, was up almost 200 percent. I’m not sure what’s behind that, but it’s a nice thing to do.”
Resident adult play was “down substantially,” he said; senior resident play up 2 percent and non-resident play was up 3 percent. Junior play was “down significantly,” he said. Members attributed that to the absence of former Executive Director Vinny Grillo.
Cantor thought it odd that Republicans should be in favor of keeping the park a golf course, as he says it isn’t self-sustaining. “It’s welfare for the wealthy,” he said.
Walkers on Saturday included members of the Norwalk Land Trust. President-elect Kathy Sievert said they were there just for fact finding. All who were opposed thought it an uphill battle. “The mayor wants this,” Cantor said, “and the way the politics are, the Republicans will give it to him.”
Correction made, 1:33 a.m.
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