Oak Hills restaurant not to blame, Norwalker says

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Former Oak Hills Park Authority member Joe Tamburri speaks passionately about the financial strategy of building a restaurant at the park.

NORWALK, Conn. – Blaming the restaurant at Oak Hills Park for all the financial problems faced by the Oak Hills Park Authority is a matter of “spin,” according to a former member of the authority.

Joe Tamburri said at last week’s OHPA meeting that he took references to the restaurant as a “white elephant” as a personal attack.

“Being a member for many years I think I have a feel for what goes on,” Tamburri said. “There’s been a lot of spin and things going on from various individuals and I take a personal note on that. When it comes to that I think we need to talk about that a lot more.”

OHPA member Ernie Desrochers, who is responsible for some of the “spin,” shook his head as Tamburri spoke.

Desrochers said recently that decisions made by politicians and agreed to by authority members had led to the authority’s financial problems.

“When the Oak Hills Park Authority was formed, there was $3.1 million in debt that the city bonded for the city to use on the park; $900,000 was for drainage improvements; $1 million was supposed to go for the construction of the restaurant; $1.2 million was supposed to go for the construction of a driving range,” he said.

Instead of spending $1 million for a restaurant, authority members dropped their driving range plan and spent $2.2 million on the restaurant, he said.

“The debt service on $2.2 million that wasn’t adjusted yet is $190,000 a year,” he said. “The most you were going to get from the restaurant was about 90 grand a year. We’re already in the hole about 100 grand before we get started.”

Tamburri is the first person to publicly rebut that claim, which has been oft-repeated since the authority asked for a $100,000 loan to make it through last winter.

“When this financing was put together for the restaurant, the restaurant stood on its own financially, meaning that the lease that was negotiated over the 15 years would have paid for that restaurant to be completed without a cost to the taxpayers or the golfing community or anyone who uses the park,” he said. “Over the last two or three years, we have had some financial problems obviously and some numbers have been floating around. It’s always pointed back to the re-financing that was done. Unfortunately, the restaurant itself took the hit on why we had financial problems.”

But, “There was a financial plan into place to make the restaurant work on its own, so let’s not point the finger at the restaurant for the financial problems the Oak Hills Authority had,” he said.

Oak Hills Park Executive Director Shelley Guyer said later that he believes the restaurant is struggling.

“It’s a tough place to have a restaurant and the rent is tremendously high,” he said.

Guyer said he favors building a driving range at the park because it will eventually generate “direct hard dollars” when the city takes it over. But, “I’m focused on making sure the restaurant is viable,” he said. “The driving range is secondary to me. I want to make sure that restaurant stays open and has a good product.”

October was an excellent month for the course, with numbers well ahead of last year, he said.

“I feel comfortable that I’ve got enough cash to get through the winter, which we haven’t been able to do for the past few years,” he said. “That doesn’t mean it’s enough money. I still need more revenue because I still have infrastructure issues down the road that I know are going to come up. I want to get the course into a position where I know it’s really on a solid financial ground.”


12 responses to “Oak Hills restaurant not to blame, Norwalker says”

  1. LWitherspoon

    Question for Mr. Tamburri: What was the financial plan in place to make the restaurant work on its own?
    What does Mr. Tamburri say to the often repeated claim that building such a large restaurant was a decision made by former Mayor Alex Knopp? What role, if any, did Mayor Knopp or his appointees to the OHPA have in the decision?

  2. Fore Naught

    Of course it is the restaurant. Many people told them not to build that albatross too. But let’s move on and build the range. The best thing to do with the building would be to downsize the dining room. Make it locker rooms. That would generate traffic in the building and who knows maybe grab a hungry golfer or two before they beat it down the road to Uncle Joe’s.

  3. jlightfield

    The axis for any discussion about Ok Hills always seems to settle on the restaurant/driving range blame game. Maybe its time that we stop catering to old white guys who make up the minority of the Norwalk population and think about some revenue generating activities that would appeal to any other demographic.
    Chelsea Piers in Stamford seems pretty packed on any given day with an indoor sports complex that offers, hockey, gymnastics, soccer, squash, tennis, swimming, baseball, softball, and basketball, amongst many more sports. Year round.
    Maybe its time for Norwalk to invest in a recreation master plan that takes a hard look at city parks, schools, shoreline and fields, and figures out a revenue sustainable way to create recreational sport product offerings that appeal to not just a subset of Norwalkers, but to the region.
    How many crew teams rowing the Norwalk Harbor will it take for City leaders to realize that Norwalk can become a regional destination for recreational sport?

  4. Piberman

    The new lessees have done a superb job with the restaurant which is one of our City ‘s jewels. Unfortunately relative few golfers use the restaurant nor does the City itself promote or make use of the restaurant. City politicians favor the Norwalk Motor Inn. If the politicians used the City owned facility the restaurant would prosper. We’ve eaten there dozens of times over the past year and are always puzzled why fellow citizens do not enjoy the best view in Norwalk.

    Let’s encourage the golf range activists to focus on the range. Not focus attention on a superb underused splendid City facility. Mayor Rilling could help by encouraging the Mayors Ball to relocate at Oak Hills and make Oak Hills a primary City facility.

  5. Suzanne

    Excellent suggestion, piberman. I, too, am puzzled at the lack of use for this excellent restaurant. I have talked with the manager several times and he says that golfer use is very low. Therefore, the idea that golfers would use a restaurant in addition to the course to make both profitable has not worked. So, the golfers complain about the “albatross” of a restaurant yet do nothing about defraying the cost of having one, provided to them for their use. Spoiled. Having the center of some of these political “do’s” be at Oak Hills is an excellent idea, though, and I hope this administration takes you up on it.

  6. Bill Dunne

    I’m going to shock Suzanne by agreeing with her. And also with piberman.

  7. diane lauricella

    FYI. The City, in addition to its Master Plan of Conservation and Development (POCD), actually has a Master Plan of Parks and Recreation document that is overdue for an update. I have urged Recreation and Parks Director to make this document available far and wide to elected and appointed officials in addition to soliciting ideas to update it for years to no avail.

    The document is not even available on the City web site in the Recreation and Parks Department page. I urge that they scan it in soon.

    It would help the department and the citizens know how tax dollars should be spent and how lucky we are to have so many park assets.

    Letting this “secret plan” be known would foster a better-coordinated and more transparent system of park changes. I hope that it is referenced in the main POCD…

    I have good hope that the new Rilling administration will recognize the need for letting its elected and appointed officials know about important planning documents in a transparent, comprehensive. I wonder how many other officials and former officials like Ms. Lightfield, were unaware about this master plan?

    I urge the new administration to pull together a comprehensive training program for each Board, Commission and Council so that all can have a solid foundation about the regulations, planning documents and fact sheets that relate to their responsibilities.

  8. i agree wholeheartedly with Diane….

  9. Ark

    Of course Joe quibbles but does not dispute any of DesRochers points. They took money form the driving range and dumped it into the restaurant to block the possibility of a driving range. Indeed the restaurant was placed in its current location to make building a driving range in the future more difficult. Now we have a restaurant that has never come close to breaking even and will never pay back the $2 million spent on it by Alex Knopp and Joe. But Joe says its OK because Joe and Alex had a plan for how the restaurant would repay that loan. Easy for liberals to put together plans for how money will come in and then walk away when reality intrudes. This is but one of the many acts of financial incompetence of the Knopp administration and Joe was right at the heart of it. The golfers and taxpayers should never forgive either of these financially inept town wreckers.

  10. Ark

    I second all those who speak on how good the restaurant is. Been a few times. Always good but almost empty each time. Yeah get the pols to go, might ruin the neighborhood but at least the drink consumption would go up.

  11. Debora

    Such a master plan might not apply to OHPA, because it is an authority.
    However, the Master Plan that the OHPA is supposed to be operating under would. The lease with the city cannot be properly complied with while the original MP is missing. The bond money tied to those original authorizations (and traffic studies) is long gone.
    The OHPA does not have the authority to make this deal on its own, and should be investigating the legality of a private entity operating on these publicly purchased lands with funds that create a debt obligation.
    I urge the OHPA to read their foundational documents again.

  12. Unfortunately, when the restaurant was built there were massive cost overruns. Now that Norwalk owns a 2 million dollar building it should rethink it’s business plan which originally assumed a 1 million dollar debt. Charging $9000.00 a month rent, for this space, is too much to ask any restaurant owner to pay.

    One other thought. Has anyone on the authority thought about the customer/golfer traffic patterns? For example, golfers have no reason to walk into the restaurant building (no quick breakfast here). They head straight to the Pro shop which is 100 yards away. Or.. how congested the first tee area will be if the driving range is built near the 6th hole/1st tee? Just imagine how the parking lots will become over-crowded and inconvenient.

    Any occupational engineer would tell you how problematic both plans are.

    There are solutions to these problems if hidden agendas are put aside and everyone works to the common good.

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