Letter: Strategic Plan For Norwalk's Oak Hills Park Is Flawed

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NORWALK, Conn. -- The Norwalk Daily Voice accepts signed letters to the editor. Send letters to norwalk@dailyvoice.com.

To The Editor: 

"The primary mission of the Oak Hills Park Association (OHPA)," according to its recently released strategic plan, "is to become the recognized market leader in providing high quality golf rounds, and practice and golf lesson services to its target market."

But the authority was never charged with managing a commercial enterprise aimed at serving a targeted market. Rather the mandate it was given was to manage Oak Hills Park in the interest of all Norwalk taxpayers. Hence, the current OHPA's strategic plan marks it as a rogue elephant wholly at odds with the purpose for which the Authority was established.

It is not surprising, therefore, that the plan calls for construction of a 36-bay, 270-yard-long driving range in Oak Hills Park despite the fact that Norwalk taxpayers roundly rejected a similar plan years ago. The authority contends that the driving range will help it cover the costs of the money losing 18-hole golf course it manages.

But for at least four reasons that is unlikely to be the case. First, as The Hour pointed out in an editorial, Oak Hills is "not the most accessible location. Driving ranges on major highways succeed because there is considerable traffic passing by." Second, competition from four other "practice ranges" in its "target market" (Smith Richardson in Fairfield, Long Shore in Westport, Sterling Farms in Stamford and Griff Harris in Greenwich) would diminish its financial prospects. Third, a large commercial driving range with its high ugly nets would make the golf course less attractive and so drive many golfers away.

Nevertheless, as its strategic plan makes clear, the OHPA is determined to follow through with its plan to allow a relatively unknown and untested private firm, Total Driving Range Solutions, to construct and operate a large commercial driving range in Oak Hills Park. How much will TDRS pay the OHPA and by extension taxpayers in the form of rent and a share of the driving range's gross revenues? Strikingly the strategic plan does not say. So the answer, we may suppose, is not much if anything at all.

Hence, if the OHPA's strategic plan is given the go ahead taxpayers can expect the Authority to come back to them again and again year after year for more money to cover the operating and maintenance costs of the 18-hole golf course. Why? Because due to the decrease in demand to play 18-holes of golf green fees no longer cover those costs.

Is there a win-win solution to this problem? Yes. In fact there is a win-win-win-win solution. But the rogue Authority blind to its mandate won't even consider it. The solution is to reduce the size of the golf course to nine holes and devote the land freed up as a result to activities enjoyed by non-golfers. A nine-hole golf course is less expensive to maintain and golfers who prefer 18-holes could simply go round twice.

Of course that means that the OHPA won't ever pay back the millions of dollars in loans that it was granted by taxpayers and had to restructure twice. But if the money-losing 18-hole golf course is not reduced in size not only will the loans not be paid back but the OHPA will be hitting up taxpayers again and again for ever more money to maintain the course.

Still there would be nothing wrong with that if most Norwalk taxpayers wanted the OHPA to become the recognized market leader in providing high quality taxpayer subsidized golf rounds and practice and golf lesson services to well heeled golfers from Westport, Wilton, New Canaan, as well as Norwalk. But most Norwalk taxpayers wouldn't be happy to know their money was being used to reduce the cost of playing golf on an 18-hole course for golfers who make up less than 11% of the residents of the city. And when they found out that 80% of those golfers were men whose more than $90,000 average yearly income exceeded their own they'd be even less happy.

Shouldn't the rapidly diminishing minority of golfers in the city be thankful, therefore, if even in the face of the well documented decrease in demand to play 18-holes of golf taxpayers were willing to devote a significant amount of land in Oak Hills Park to a nine- hole course? Think about it. A multi-use public park is needed near the center of Norwalk and Norwalk Community College because the only other multi-use public park in Norwalk, Cranberry Park, is on the outskirts of the city and not readily accessible to most Norwalk's taxpayers. And a multi-use park that served the needs of most golfers is what Oak Hills could be turned into if the golf course was reduced in size.

Who then, besides these golfers, would be winners? First, taxpayers who would not be burdened with the $4,000,000 in additional expenses called for by the OHPA strategic plan. Second, environmentalists concerned about the large amount of water and poisonous chemicals required by the 18-hole course. Third, all those living near Oak Hills Park who don't want to see the residential quality of their neighborhood undermined by a large commercial driving range constructed with the goal of generating income to maintain an 18-hole money losing golf course. And fourth, everyone in the city who favors any of the many activities that a 144 acre park might make available to them if it was not primarily devoted to serving the interest of a tiny well off minority whose mantra is you pay we play.

Paul Cantor

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Comments (1)

The author is out to protect his own property values.

How about we sell off the property to developers? or use it for affordable housing? or how about a homeless shelter? All things people from Norwalk could use.