NORWALK, Conn. – The $4.5 million asking price to renovate Oak Hills Park has been rethought, according to Oak Hills Park Authority Chairman Clyde Mount. The current thinking is to phase in the improvements, with the proposed driving range being last on the list, he said.
“The thought is we would do the course renovation-type stuff first so we would get ready for the range. I think that’s where our heads are. Get the continuous golf cart paths, get ready for the range, move things around so that we could execute the range more efficiently,” Mount said, at Thursday’s poorly attended public hearing on the master plan drawn up by OPHA members and Total Driving Range Solutions (TDRS).
The master plan represents quite a switch from what was promised to the public in December 2012 when a Request for Proposals (RFP) was put out, seeking bids from companies to build a driving range at the course without cost to the city. It’s not easy to see where city officials are on this plan as none attended Thursday’s hearing, although Mount changed the date so they could attend.
That appears to be a miscommunication.
“I asked them to move it so that Common Council people could attend,” Mayor Harry Rilling said Friday. “Now whether they were notified that it was moved I don’t know. I don’t know if they expected me to notify the Common Council but I didn’t and in fact I had to find out when it was.”
Several council members, contacted during Thursday’s hearing, said they had meetings, including the Health, Welfare and Public Safety Committee and the Republican and Democratic Town Committee meetings. Rilling said he was at a graduation.
“I’ve looked at the study,” Rilling said. “I am familiar with it and I got a gist of what some of the comments were – there were several in favor of it, several against it and you know a determination has to be made. It’s the Oak Hills Park Authority that makes the final determination as to how to implement the master plan. Of course they do have to come to the city if they want a loan. I don’t know at this point what their ask is going to be or where the city would get the money.”
“Obviously I believe we made one pretty big mistake when we did the plan,” Mount said Thursday. “The big mistake is asking the city to give us all the money all at once. Most master plans phase things in. I have already spoken to the chairman of this committee and we are going look to try to come up with a phased in approach … It will be in the final draft that we take to the full authority board and to the Common Council. We have to just figure out what pieces we should do first.”
The problem, Mount said later, was that building a range is “lots and lots of work” and no one wants to hinder golfing.
But the current thinking is “not locked in stone. Maybe we would go for the range first. The range would be the biggest revenue generator. So if we do a phased in approach we will need the city to help us. If we do the range approach it’s going to self-fund it quickly,” Mount said.
Continuing changes to the master plan include digging into the earth to make the proposed driving range lower, so that it will conform with zoning regulations, Mount said.
Oak Hills Park Authority adversary Paul Cantor tossed together a series of clichés to illustrate his feeling about the “Pie in the sky, grasping for straws, Hail Mary” plan for a commercial driving range.
“You don’t put out a fire by pouring gasoline on it,” he said, referring to the money the authority already owes Norwalk. “…If large commercial driving ranges were so profitable the Oak Hills Park Authority would have been able to obtain a loan from a private sector to construct one. Furthermore, if driving ranges were so profitable private sector firms would be buying up land and constructing them everywhere. That has not happened.”
He said Sterling Farms in Stamford was built with a private sector loan but Mount said that loan is backed by the city.
“The city basically co-signed for the loan,” Mount said. “If you can get the city to co-sign for the loan I am sure we can get a loan but it’s still on the backs of the taxpayers.”
Don Anderson was another commenter who questioned the debt. He said that if Norwalk were to take on the $1.9 million still owed for the restaurant he’d be OK with spending money on the course. Otherwise, the master plan is “not a financially viable option. I love the idea. I appreciate all the work that people have put into creating what they created, it seems to be pretty good,” Anderson said.
Rick Wetzel said improving the course would improve the value of his property. Scott Webb said his 8-year-old son is learning to play golf and enjoys it because of the staff at the park.
“I think a training facility is going to bring more revenue, plus any business, no matter what it is, if you don’t put more money into it it’s not going to grow, it’s not going to get any better,” Webb said. “…We need to stop focusing on the little things and the little voices that are keeping us from making this a better place for us. Norwalk needs a driving range desperately. Stamford makes tons of money off their driving range year round. I know it. I am there.”
Others criticized the process.
“I don’t think the fact finding and the outreach in the public hearings has been sufficient,” Bill Wrenn said, urging the authority to get an Audubon certification instead of continuing to dump chemicals into the ground.
Mike Mushak, a zoning commissioner and registered landscape architect, threw bouquets to the authority. “I think it is well designed,” he said. “I would love to see it built if the financials can be worked out, I think it would add a lot to the experience. I might even take up golf.”
But then he echoed Wrenn, saying first that the declining interest in golf has industry leaders and investment banks worried.
“That’s not a trend we should ignore,” Mushak said. “I think that maybe if (a nine-hole course) was done in a feasibility study as part of a master plan and we had facts instead of emotion, that might justify that as an option – maybe it takes 20 years. But part of that master plan process should be environmental testing of ground water and surface water.”
Mount said the authority does not have $50,000 to spend on a master plan. Jim Downing and other TDRS members have done “a phenomenal job. (Downing) gets beat up but they have put in a ton of money.”
Downing said it was the authority’s idea to have the city finance the driving range.
“After the authority had read the numbers and studied them they came to us and said ‘Look we’d like to try to fund this ourselves and operate it.’ Our answer was ‘OK.’ I mean, we live here. We’re here to try to make it a better park, a better golf course. If that’s what they want to do it’s fine by us. We’re a vendor. So we’ll build it, that’s what we do,” Downing said.
TDRS would manage the construction, he said.
“We would get a construction management fee to do all the work, make sure it’s running to snuff, and then when the CO (Certificate of Occupancy) comes these guys run it,” Downing said.
So why then, if Downing isn’t out to make a killing, doesn’t the city allow Downing to build the range and then buy it from him?
“That existed and the price tag was outrageous,” Mount said. “That’s kind of why we switched, because we didn’t want to put that burden on the city, to say now ‘OK, you have to buy the range at X dollars’ and it’s too much money. It really comes down to the economics of the city owning it truly make the most sense for the city in controlling costs, operations, everything.”