Scorned bidder: Proposed Norwalk driving range would not be a draw for Oak Hills

Tad King of King Golf International shows off a course he renovated in Tennessee, where he created a new topography. That isn’t necessary for a driving range in Norwalk, where he would use the existing topography in the Oak Hills Park woods, he said.

NORWALK, Conn. – The competition for the right to build a driving range in Norwalk’s Oak Hills Park appears to be over, but the architect behind the spurned proposal is coming out of the woodwork to fight for what he sees as a sure money maker – for himself, for his business partner and for Norwalk.

Tad King of King Golf International, who is currently building a golf course overlooking the Great Pyramid of Giza, said the course he has planned for the park’s woods would be a destination, “perhaps the finest and most unique practice facility in the states.” The Total Driving Range Solutions (TDRS) proposal to build a driving range on the course itself, which was chosen by the Oak Hills Park Authority ad hoc driving range committee, would only draw people who want to play golf at Oak Hills, he said. King has therefore come to NancyOnNorwalk to share the details with authority members and dispel what he sees as misinformation.

“I am finding it increasingly difficult to rationalize how the chairman of the Authority can continue taking TDRS’s proposal seriously,” King said in an email.

The proposed location, in the area of the first hole and the sixth tee, is too narrow, King said. When the authority voted unanimously in August to go with the TDRS proposal, it did so with no knowledge of what King was proposing, King said. His proposal also includes master planning services, but authority members don’t know about that, or his offer to renovate the first hole pro bono, he said.

King takes issue with Committee Chairman Ernie Desrochers’ statement that TDRS was chosen as the best business deal, not because of trees, and a statement Desrochers made at last month’s OHPA meeting about a turning point just before the committee’s August recommendation to go with TDRS.

“The other proponent was given the opportunity to make a best and final bid,” Desrochers said, of King. “His business partner felt they couldn’t go any better than what they proposed.”

King said he told Desrochers there was plenty of wiggle room left at that juncture, even if his partner, Titan Capital, said they couldn’t do any better.

“I’ve got leverage,” he said.”Without me Titan Capital gets nothing. I explained, there’s wiggle room left. This is not the best and final offer … It was never a best final take it or leave it, ever. I reached out and told him in October — we can sweeten the pie. I just keep getting ignored.”

He and others thought the TDRS selection was just a negotiating ploy, King said.

“We chose what we felt was the best business deal  for the OHPA,” Desrochers said in an email. “There were also several other environmental benefits that makes the deal even better from a community standpoint. We stand by our belief that we made the best decision for the OHPA and the city of Norwalk.”

King said he “has lost his line of communication” with Desrochers, but has circulated some of his master planning ideas to golfers. Like those presented at the last OHPA meeting by Jim Downing of TDRS, they are centered around the first hole.

“Oak Hills has a serious congestion problem,” King said. “It’s been piecemealed over, every few years, somebody, the committee, comes up with an idea. There’s no fluidity to it. It needs help, all around the clubhouse, the first tee, the starter shack, everything.”

OHGC Front 9 - CH Flow copy v.4
Tad King’s proposed revisions to the Oak Hills Park golf course.

Like Downing, King would demolish the current pro shop and move the operations into the building that is the restaurant.

He would widen the cul de sac currently at the first tee to make it wide enough for an SUV. The golfer would come, a caddy would take his golf bag and he would go park. He would add two new tees, which would be elevated, making it a par 5 for men, and leaving it a par 4 for women.

“I have offered to do the work that I am speaking of pro bono,” he said. “I’ll throw that in. I’ve already got all the resources, machinery and talent there. What the heck, why not?”

King said Desrochers did not share the information that he would do master planning at the lowest price Desrochers said he would accept.

“Both King and TDRS agreed to provide the same services to the OHPA for the same cost,” Desrochers said. “His team was given ample opportunity to improve on their final offer and they chose not to.”

King said his last formal proposal revision, submitted July 18, offered the authority $30,000 rent a year plus 5.5 percent of the gross revenues for the first 10 years, increasing after that.

“King Golf’s facility outperforms TDRS financially even under that proposal, when using King Golf’s projected revenue,” King said in a statement, attached below.

That offer has since been improved, King said. While his original response to the Request for Proposals (RFP) asked the city to guarantee his loan, King said he has proof of funds for 100 percent of the capital necessary to build his range, $2 million. The original response was a misunderstanding, he said.

“This thing is going to make money and I got it funded in less than two months, with no guarantee,” King said.

He said he didn’t think Downing had the financing he needs to build the TDRS proposal, based on a press release Downing put out when his plan was selected.

Downing replied in an email that suspicion is “not true.” Desrochers said, “He has someone who is willing to provide him financing but we have not finished with our negotiations yet. Finalizing a business deal in terms of granular details is a lot more complicated than people think. That has been a work in progress.”

King said Desrochers took him to the alternate driving range location, the one chosen by Downing, in July and asked if he would design something for that spot. King declined.

“You can’t even achieve mediocrity with the lay of the land. It’s too narrow,” he said. “… I’ve been in the business long enough, I know you can’t make money there. It’s not possible. … I’ve been building golf for 26 years. I’ve built it on four continents, for Jack Nicklaus, Gary Player, Greg Norman, Peter Thomson. I’ve got what is considered the best nine hole golf course in the world, on record, and these guys are not giving me the time of day.”

Mayor Harry Rilling said in an email that he is “very much” against putting a driving range in the woods outlined in the authority’s RFP.

King was hired in 2011 to rebuild an existing nine-hole course near Chattanooga, Tenn. The resultant Battle Creek golf course is “potentially one of America’s — and thus the world’s — very best nine-hole courses,” wrote Adam Lawrence, editor of Golf Course Architecture.

Opponents of putting a driving range in the woods at Oak Hills have suggesting making room for one in another location by shortening the course to nine or 12 holes, which they say is a trend. King said it’s not that far-fetched an idea.

“I have a client in Colombia right now and we are considering building a 12-hole golf course,” he said. “I think 18 holes – what happened in the ’90’s and 2000’s were all these signature designers started 75-hole championship golf courses that were much too difficult, too expensive to maintain and much too expensive to build, they all take too long to play. Tom Doak at Bandon Dunes built a 13-hole golf course on the coast in Oregon and it’s phenomenally successful. When he did it he was crazy. I wouldn’t take that off the table.”

King’s design for Norwalk, detailed in a separate story, uses existing trees to give golfers a choice of obstacles, simulating challenges they find while playing different holes on a golf course. Downing’s plan is a typical driving range, like Stamford’s Sterling Farms, he said. The area the hitting bays are in is wider than the end the golfers would be aiming at.

“It just narrows down. You’re just hitting golf balls,” he said. “… They’re not going to take any of the market share from Sterling Farms. The only guys who are going to use it are the ones who are warming up, they’re going to play a round at Oak Hills. You’ll get some stragglers but it’s not going to be a destination thing. People are not going out of their way to come here.”

Tad King Bullet Points

King Golf &TDRS Financial Comparison

Adam Lawrence’s Reference for Tad King

Tim Lobb’s Reference for Tad King

Ron Whitten Reference for Tad King


11 responses to “Scorned bidder: Proposed Norwalk driving range would not be a draw for Oak Hills”

  1. Suzanne

    “I’m prepared to deliver Norwalk what could perhaps be the finest and most unique
    practice facility in the States, thanks in part to the natural contours and beauty of the
    Authority’s preferred location.” That would be by destroying the ‘natural contours and beauty’ of the woods behind the restaurant. This gentleman goes onto say that since he is so very good at destroying acres of stone in Giza like he is on another project, jack hammering a few rocks behind a restaurant in Norwalk would be a cinch. Why the sour grapes at this late date? Surely, given his self and other-proclaimed success, he does not need the business and, as a business man, I highly doubt any altruistic desires on behalf of Norwalk. So now we have a bidder in a process with the cooperation of the OHPA and another, not chosen, wanting to fight that process with the caveat that his revised proposal was not presented properly to the Ad Hoc committee. While the latter would not surprise me, I do wonder about this successful golf developer coming out publicly, at the eleventh hour, trying to gum up the works. He is trying to re-open a conversation that is over. If he doesn’t think he has been treated fairly, go through the proper government channels to get a hearing just like everyone else. The fourth estate, this time, should not be of assistance to an ambitious man bent on destruction nobody but a few spoiled golfers wants.

  2. Oldtimer

    The entire story about a driving/practice range at Oak Hills has been driven, from the start, by opinion. Proponents have said it would be the immediate answer to the park’s financial problems. Others have questioned that premise, wondering how long it would take to pay off the investment and start adding anything to the park’s bottom line. Well-intentioned people on both sides have been forced to rely on not necessarily objective opinion with nobody talking facts. Are facts that hard to come by ?
    A survey of existing driving ranges in Fairfield County would gather some facts and give us all a better idea if a driving range, under any circumstances, would pay for itself, much less generate profits for the park. Why hasn’t this been done ? Is this whole process being driven by the opinion of a few that a driving range would be a money maker without any effort to gather the truth ? The only experts that we know have been heard are contractors who stand to benefit from the construction process, hardly impartial sources. If some impartial evaluation of the concept has been done to find the cost/benefit connected with driving/practice ranges, why haven’t we heard of it ? Shouldn’t that be a first required step before we let range builders/vendors control the discussion ?

  3. Here are some interesting facts that I found on one of the cities web pages (http://www.norwalkct.org/DocumentCenter/Home/View/2300). According to the National Parks and Recreation Association, driving ranges should face northeast and not south and are suitable and viable for populations of more than 50,000. From their point of view, they would pick the “behind the restaurant” proposal. If the environmental issues can be solved, I think King is the only right choice.

  4. David

    I applaud King for bringing big ideas, the “destination” concept, but the political situation around the woods behind the restaurant meant a protracted drag-out fight was a certainty, and victory in that fight was never assured.
    As far as Kings comments regarding “taking market share” from Sterling Farms – he is both right and wrong. Stamford itself is hardly a “destination”. It has many hitting bays, but its the same concept – aim for targets placed on the ground. During the summer you can wait up to half an hour for a bay to open. The clientele for a driving range at Oak Hills are golfers who don’t currently go to Sterling because distance is a barrier or do go, but would prefer something closer. And what’s wrong with courting golfers who are “warming up” before a round? Heck, up-sell an existing round of golf by $6 or $10 dollars. It doesn’t take an MBA to see the value in that proposition.
    If you’re going to present a “grand vision” of any sort, in any business, buy-in is essential. If you can’t get that buy-in, build it yourself and win converts. The latter is not (apparently) an option, and the former is not going to happen any time soon. IMHO.

  5. Suzanne

    The environmental issue cannot be solved based upon the concepts presented for the land behind the restaurant. I am very familiar with the topography, the presence of wetlands and waterways, the massive ledge and the close adjacency of the property to private homes. Those homeowners currently walk out to back yards that are bordered by natural topography. Proposed driving ranges in that location, with their nets of at least 100 feet high, would substantially change the context and value of the adjacent properties. The heavily treed land would have to be denuded, wetlands filled, ledge jack-hammered into submission. Finally, the OHPA makes a reasonable decision, and people are talking about the optimal direction of a range to destroy this one last bit of land that can be used, as per the charter of Oak Hills Park, by all the people of Norwalk, not just golfers. Oldtimer, I did do research on the driving ranges in Fairfield County, especially on the lauded Sterling Farms raking in the bucks. It just isn’t so: I spoke with the manager of Sterling Farms and, after expenses for upkeep and payment to the City of Stamford as required by the agreement to have a driving range there, their “profits” are in the tens of thousands, not the gross amount often repeated by Mr. Virgulak of $400,000 per year. In addition, I investigated the driving range at the public course in Ridgefield and others checked out Longshore and one other I am not remembering at the moment. None of these facilities profess to use their ranges to defray the costs of upkeep for their golf courses. None.

  6. Suzanne,
    Are we talking about the same design? As I understand it, very few trees would be cut down ( BTW – replacement trees would planted elsewhere within OH), and the wetlands are just outside the proposed area.

    As far as income is concerned, I again disagree. Even if the driving range only brought in $50,000 net profit, the restaurant, pro shop and course would benefit.

    I looked at the plan, and there appears to be a substantial buffer between the abutting houses and the driving range. I suspect with the foliage and additional plantings, you would be hard pressed to see the 100 ft. net. I’m sorry, but you haven’t made a convincing argument.

  7. Suzanne

    RWetzel, Clearly you have never walked this property. There is no way a driving range could be established if anyone wants to hit a bucket of balls that is without removing most of the trees on this property. In addition, the wetlands maybe just outside the design BUT the design does not account for the runoff or impact of newly established grading to those wetlands, the nearby stream and nearby pond all of which feed into the Five Mile River. A recreational facility of this type just does not belong on a sloping, ledge-filled area such as this without substantial alterations. From the top of the highest point to the lowest point shows a 70 foot elevation change: how does that become a usable driving range without destroying the existing topography by removing trees and ledge to establish the range? In addition, there is no foliage, unless, somehow right on the wetlands or narrow back yard borders sixty to one hundred foot trees are established, will those nets not be an incursion upon the adjacent property owners. You need to see this place, RWetzel, to appreciate it and you also need to see the land you are talking about. A design is just a piece of paper unless you see the context. Go see it.

  8. Suzanne

    The net for Sterling Farms in a good year is around $40,000. That is a facility adjacent to huge numbers of office buildings which feed into the play on both the course and range. This is direct information from the manager there. In addition, if you check out the proposed numbers after lease agreements and “profit sharing” (so to speak) of the current proposal, it maxes out at around $12,000 per year in a good year. Where are you getting the $50,000 number? It doesn’t play out at Sterling Farms, Ridgefield, definitely not Longshore (an “ad hoc” facility) or other public courses in the area. Oak Hills Park is in a residential neighborhood not adjacent to any particular “feeder” commercial demographics and depends upon the residential player (with the exception of tournament and club play which does not support the year round expenses of an 18-hole golf course.) However you would like to support this “new/old” design in the woods, RWetzel, it makes no sense financially nor environmentally.

  9. Suzanne,
    You clearly have a hidden agenda. It can’t be funding – no tax dollars are involved. The environmental issues you cite – runoff? really? As the plan has been explained to me, very little impact. The driving range would be a natural, realistic experience – not a flat football field with nets. Let’s agree that we have opposite opinions. What I want is a well designed driving range, and surrounding area that takes in consideration ALL issues, not just those with loud voices.

  10. Debora

    Such an evaluation of potential earnings was done back in 2004 under the Knopp administration. None of the competing driving/practice ranges were netting out more than 75,000 per year. The proposals here do not come close to the amenities that produced the earnings at the high end of the range. And golf play had declined considerably since then.
    Considering the fact that there are bonds to be paid the OHPA is to be commended for taking real world economic conditions into consideration.
    Suzanne is correct. One needs to see the land that is be proposed for destruction to understand the implications to the neighbors and the environment.
    Considering that Mr. King refused to walk those woods himself, he may in fact not be aware of the destruction he is proposing, or the true cost to execute his plan.

  11. Debora,
    Look at the caption under Mr. King’s photo. It reads “Tad King of King Golf International shows off a course he renovated in Tennessee, where he created a new topography. That isn’t necessary for a driving range in Norwalk, where he would use the existing topography in the Oak Hills Park woods, he said. Maybe Mr. King and Suzanne should walk the property together.

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