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Opinion: First the conclusion, then the study

Opinion searchThe Oak Hills Park Authority, the autonomous body that oversees the money-losing 18-hole golf course in Oak Hills Park, recently paid the National Golf Foundation $21,000 for a “study” to support its contention that the multi-million dollar double-decker, 36-bay driving range it wants taxpayers to loan it money to construct will be profitable.

Hence, NGF consultant, Mr. Richard Singer, thanked the Authority and reassured its members that he thought “with the master plan for the range, golf school, and phases one and two of renovations, this will be a tremendous place” and that he would applaud its efforts to construct the driving range.

In short, the “study’s” conclusion has been agreed upon. All that is left now is for Mr. Singer to support the conclusion on paper, bill it as an unbiased study and turn it over to Thomas Barron, the city’s director of management and the budget. Then Mr. Barron will present the study to the Common Council, and there is every indication that the Common Council will use it to justify lending the Authority money to construct the driving range.

But before any member of the Common Council votes to lend the OHPA money to construct a double-decker, 36-bay driving range euphemistically referred to as a golf learning center, she or he should be aware of the following information that will be played down or ignored altogether in what the OHPA will euphemistically refer to as the National Golf Foundation’s “study”:

  • The OHPA relies on taxpayer largesse – most recently in the form of a $1.5 million state grant – because user fees don’t cover the cost of the golf course it operates.
  • The Authority previously promised it would not seek a loan from taxpayers to construct the driving range but would rely on the private sector for a loan.
  • The Authority tried and failed to get a loan from the private sector to construct the driving range.
  • The private sector wouldn’t loan the Authority money to construct the driving range because it could not be convinced that a multi-million dollar driving range in a park in a residential neighborhood had a ghost of a chance of generating enough revenue to pay back the cost of constructing it.
  • A major factor in undermining the OHPA’s contention that the private sector is mistaken and that a 36-bay, double-decker driving range in Oak Hills Park is likely to be profitable is the well-documented dramatic decrease in the demand to play golf.  As the National Golf Foundation itself points out on its website, for instance, “The number of golf courses began shrinking in the early-2000s … and the trend shows no signs of abating.”  Indeed, it expects 5 to 10 percent of public courses to close over the next 10 years. And according to a story in the Washington Post last March, golf as a pastime “has rapidly begun to fall apart.” Hence, “TaylorMade-Addidas Golf, the world’s biggest maker of golf clubs and clothes, saw sales nose dive 28 percent last year.”
  • Meanwhile, stories with additional information regarding the drop in demand to play golf have appeared recently in the Wall Street Journal, New York Times, and many other publications.  “Golf Market Stuck in Bunker as Thousands Leave the Sport” read a headline in Bloomberg News, for instance, and an article in The Economist pointed out that Iin recent years, more people have abandoned than taken up the game.” Moreover, the OHPA’S own numbers for Norwalk reflect the national trend. In 2014, for instance, only 36,426 rounds were played in Oak Hills Park, a 20 percent decrease from the 45,475 rounds played in 2008.
  • If large commercial driving ranges were profitable, more of them would be constructed by profit-seeking entrepreneurs in the private sector. In other words, the lack of privately owned and operated commercial driving ranges is evidence that the OHPA’s contention that its proposed 36-bay, double-decker driving range will be profitable lacks credibility.
  • The former Oak Hills golf course superintendent, Thomas Vorio, said a driving range is not the solution to the Authority’s financial woes and the Authority knows it.
  • Amar Haouri and Vincent LaForte, the owners of the Oak Hills Restaurant on the Green, said if the Oak Hills Park Authority goes through with its plan to construct the driving range it will “break our legs.” Consequently, the income the Authority receives from their monthly lease payments would be lost.
  • The proposed double-decker driving range with its high nets would deter golfers from playing the course.  As a result, user fees from rounds played would decline.
  • Total Driving Range Solutions, the firm the OHPA chose to construct and operate the 36-bay, double-decker driving range and the firm that came up with its design, has never constructed or operated a driving range before.
  • Tad King of King Golf International who has constructed and operated driving ranges, pointed out there is not enough room for a driving range in the location where the OHPA, following TDRS advice, would locate it. “I’ve been in the business long enough, I know you can’t make money there. It’s not possible,” he said.
  • John Sharkey, who worked at the course until recently, said that the range would:  i. “be a disruption and a distraction,” ii. be unpopular because it would require those who used it to hit balls into the sun,  iii. lead to traffic that would interfere with golfers trying to make it to their tee times, iv. ruin the practice green and, v. lead to golfers playing the course being hit by stray golf balls.
  • There are three golf courses within a few miles of Oak Hills Park. Two of those courses, Shorehaven in Norwalk and Longshore in Westport, have practice ranges without nets.  One of them, Silvermine, does not even have a practice range.
  • Oak Hills already has a practice range that serves the interests of local golfers.
  • There is not enough space in Oak Hills Park to accommodate a large commercial driving range along with an 18-hole golf course. As Mr. Sharkey put it in a letter to The Hour:  “I am speaking as a golfer of Oak Hills in reference to the proposed site of the driving range, which would be located by the sixth green…it is time for golfers of Oak Hills to step up and let their voices be heard. This is our golf course, and we should have a say in this proposed range. Furthermore, a net behind the number six green will weaken the challenge of the hole.”
  • Years ago, when the OHPA proposed to construct a driving range, Edward M. Kweskin of Wofsey, Rosen, Kweskin & Kuriansky, LLP, pointed out that it would not make money and, furthermore, that before it was constructed the city would have to set aside “money to compensate all of the property owners in the neighborhood for the diminution in their property values (i.e., taking their private property for public purposes) by virtue of the lights, noise and traffic that will be associated with the proposed driving range.” Then, when the idea of building it was abandoned, an editorial in The Hour commented: “The decision of the Oak Hills Authority to drop plans for a driving range in Norwalk’s Oak Hills Park, is a wise one. The original plan for a two-deck driving range with 40 stalls was a grandiose one, and went far beyond the needs of local golfers… The location of the golf course off the beaten path, and the narrow road network around it all, argued against it.  Add to that the need for additional parking space and the plan made no sense at all.”
  • The OHPA’s proposed driving range would further limit non-golfers’ access to the Park.  Children, for instance, sleigh ride on the hill over which the OHPA wants to construct the driving range.  Hence, if the driving range is constructed, children will no longer be able to enjoy sleigh riding in the park.

Norwalk taxpayers are already subsidizing a money-losing 18-hole golf course for the benefit of a dwindling 10 percent minority of Norwalk residents who play golf and their wealthier fellow duffers from New Canaan, Darien and other surrounding communities. Now they are being asked to subsidize construction of what is likely to become a money-losing driving range that will make the Park even less accessible than it already is to those who don’t play golf while undermining the residential quality of the neighborhood in which it is located.

Comments

One response to “Opinion: First the conclusion, then the study”

  1. Amar Haouari

    Paul,
    kindly please hear me,
    I said making the restaurant smaller would break our legs nothing else…
    I care about mother nature as much as you do and respect you for that,
    The truth is that I am not willing to get involved with anything else,
    We have invested heavily on the the restaurant and have our families to provide and protect
    Beside trying to protect our investment,
    I wish not to be involved in something I am not educated about,
    I hope you enjoy the foliage as much as I do !
    it is very beautiful outside 🙂

    A.

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