Norwalk Aquarium’s new lease approved, over Watts’ objections

Norwalk Councilman David Watts (D-District A) speaks at Tuesday's Council meeting in City Hall.
Norwalk Councilman David Watts (D-District A) speaks at Tuesday’s Council meeting in City Hall.

NORWALK, Conn. – The Maritime Aquarium finally has a new lease with Norwalk, about a year after a new lease was initially approved the Common Council. But it’s a shame, Councilman David Watts (D-District A) said repeatedly, that the aquarium will not give something back to the city. It’s also a shame, he said, that other Council members would not support a program for Norwalk’s children.

The Maritime Aquarium will pay the city $1 a year under the new lease, which is effective through 2031. In return, the Aquarium will pay for all the upkeep on a building that Planning Committee Chairman Doug Hempstead (R-At Large) said is more than 100 years old, which was rehabbed more than 30 years ago. It’s a “physical structure that’s going to need a lot of TLC,” he said, calling it a “fair lease.”

A new lease for the Aquarium was actually approved by the previous Council just before the last election, but that approval authorized former Mayor Richard Moccia to sign the agreement. The need to authorize Mayor Harry Rilling to sign it opened up the door for more finagling. Hempstead said the Aquarium had made concessions: The city was given access along the waterway and the Aquarium agreed to take over the maintenance.

At the last Council meeting, Watts said the Aquarium should give the city more. He wanted a week-long free summer class open to 75 Norwalk children for three weeks for the first year of the lease and open to 100 children for four weeks in the second year of the lease.

This time around, Watts bashed the Aquarium over and over again with the news that an arrangement has been made to give up to 120 Bridgeport girls hands-on after-school instruction one day a week for 12 weeks. That should have been Norwalk kids, he said.

Councilwoman Phaedrel “Faye” Bowman (D-District B) echoed his sentiments. The summer program for Norwalk kids, as described above, would be worth about $10,000, she said. “Even if it $20,000 I think our youth in the city of Norwalk are worth it,” she said, going on to suggest that the Aquarium should extend its First Free Saturday further, through much of the year.

Councilman Bruce Kimmel (D-At Large) said it was a good idea, and there are other good ideas out there. But, “We really can’t begin to incorporate a whole variety of possible program changes into a long-term lease that will create all kinds of complexities and possibly box either the city or the Aquarium into a corner should things work out a little differently than we anticipated in the next few years,” he said. “Again, these are good idea and I know we can implement them, but I think you don’t implement them through a lease. You implement them with discussions with the authority.”

Councilman Rich Bonenfant (R-At Large) said he was confident the Aquarium had gotten the message at the last Council meeting and will have an open mind for new programs. But he said he didn’t like the financial arrangement in the lease.

Councilwoman Sharon Stewart (D-At Large) said that, given the concerns raised by Kimmel at the last meeting about the Aquarium’s ability to maintain the building in the future, she didn’t understand why the lease was through 2031. It would make sense to give the Aquarium five years and see what happens, and possibly renew it at that point, she said.

“It’s very strange that given all the opportunities and the amount of leeway that the city of Norwalk has given to the Maritime Center that they would go and partner with the city of Bridgeport with the same program that we introduced to them,” Stewart said. “I don’t understand that at all.”

Councilman David McCarthy (R-District E) said Watts had the germ of a great idea, but the Aquarium’s program with Bridgeport has a business sponsor. The first step for having a program for Norwalk kids would be to line up a sponsor, he said.

Dominion Resources’ K-12 Education Partnership program is sponsoring the classes for Bridgeport girls, according to a press release from the Aquarium. The Dominion Foundation, the philanthropic arm of Dominion Resources,  has awarded grants of up to $10,000 each to 77 schools in nine states and the District of Columbia to fund projects related to energy and the environment for the 2014-2015 academic year, the release said.

“I did ask the administration,” Watts replied to McCarthy. “I did reach out to people and asked them to communicate with the Aquarium, to see what would it take to bring this program to the city and I got nothing back.”

He said he assumed the program he had in mind would take less than $10,000. “I think the city should have been a little more forceful,” he said.

“It seems like this is an instance where the city of Bridgeport is doing something better than us because they are establishing a program and we are not. No one outside of a few individuals supported something like this.

He also said:

“There is a value to the lease, and that value is in our kids. When you put together this shiny project for kids from Bridgeport and tell us our kids can’t have it, or not even discuss it or entertain it, I think it’s a shame. I wouldn’t support the lease under no circumstances because if it’s not good enough for our kids then it shouldn’t be good for any kids. It’s not right…. Whoever didn’t support it, shame on you.”

“The mindset for our city should always be our kids our kids come first.”

“What I circulated was not just a program for African-American kids, or Latino kids, or poor kids. It was open to all kids, city-wide. There was no income attached to it, there shouldn’t be income attached to it.”

The vote was called after that. It passed 10 to 5.

Voting for the lease were Glenn Iannaccone (R-At Large), Eloisa Melendez (D-District A), Michelle Maggio (R-District C), John Kydes (D-District C), Shannon O’Toole Giandurco (R-District D), Jerry Petrini (R-District D), John Igneri (D-District E), McCarthy, Hempstead and Kimmel. Voting against it were Travis Simms (D-District B), Stewart, Bonenfant, Watts and Bowman.


12 responses to “Norwalk Aquarium’s new lease approved, over Watts’ objections”

  1. Suzanne

    Mr. Watts didn’t hear at least two things: the Bridgeport program is being sponsored by an organization paying for it and the Aquarium is a REGIONAL attraction visited by many more than people from Norwalk.

    If Mr. Watts wants programs for kids there, talk to the authority as was suggested by another Council member (really? The Council is now going to start organizing and running school programs? They truly are now giving me a headache) and find a sponsor. (Maybe he could even get his name on it.) Otherwise, “Shame on him.”

  2. John Hamlin

    Surprising that this lease would be controversial in any way. The Council could not even unanimously support one of the few entirely positive things for the City.

  3. Don’t Panic

    Now taking friendly wagers as to when the Aquarium will come back to the City to take on the maintenance costs with a new loan…

  4. Scott

    What would be more devastating – a program Bridgeport kids get that Norwalk kids don’t or an empty building where the Maritime Aquarium is? It is the only regional destination that the South Norwalk revitalization has to build around. It draws consumers from outside of our city to spend money inside of our city. If they are lost we would be hard pressed to replace them.
    Perhaps Mr. Watts should approach Lowe’s about this program. It would have been money better spent than the overpriced pavillion at Flax Hill Park. Or perhaps Costco who should be grateful BJs was blocked from Rt 7.

  5. Michael McGuire

    A real estate lease should be about the real estate and not be bogged down with social do-good programs that only muddy the waters.

    Case in point POKO – a development so loaded down with social do good by short sighted policy makers its likely never to get out of the ground. And this in a period of time when apartment development is the darling of the real estate industry and lenders are falling over themselves to fund apartment deals.

  6. Don’t Panic

    A real estate lease should also provide material value to both parties.

  7. Scott

    Don’t Panic you and Mr. Watts can’t see the forest tor the trees

  8. Watts?

    “It’s a SHAME this guy doesn’t just relinquish his duties as Common Council.”

  9. Don’t Panic

    I see an organization with million dollar patrons running its operations with low-paid volunteers whose parking is subsidized by the city, that has had a $20 million loan forgiven and now wants to pay $1 a year lease.

    I see the storefronts in SoNo turning over about once every nine months. What I don’t see is all the alleged economic benefit for Norwalk.

    The Maritime charges between $13 and $20 per ticket for a 144,000 square foot facility. In contrast, the New York Aquarium in Coney Island charges $12 per ticket for a 14 acre facility.

    I don’t think it’s too much to ask that the aquarium honor its loan. I also don’t think it makes sense to try to negotiate a social program as part of a lease, but that’s a political discussion, not an economic one.

  10. LWitherspoon

    120 Bridgeport children are receiving an after-school program one day per week for 12 weeks, due to the generosity of a private donor.

    Mr. Watts states that Bridgeport kids are enjoying a program/benefit that Norwalk kids don’t. Is this accurate? Whatever the case, Norwalk children already visit during school hours and I recall reading prior NoN coverage about other unique programs at the Aquarium for Norwalk children. NoN also reported Supt. Rivera’s strong interest in expanding the collaboration between the Aquarium and Norwalk schools, which the Aquarium has said it supports and I presume is already in the works.

    Here’s an off-the-wall idea: Let’s see Mr. Watts do the work of identifying $20,000 in savings in Norwalk’s budget, and then half the savings could be used to fund an after-school or summer program for 120 Norwalk schoolchildren. It would be a new and welcome experience to see Mr. Watts proposing cost savings, rather than fighting them as he usually does at the behest of his municipal employee union supporters.

  11. Maritime Yards Condo Owner

    Germ of a good idea, but misguided…this is a lease that should be uncomplicated. If the council is interested in leveraging the aquarium for Norwalk students, then it should pursue, but not tagged to a lease…corporate sponsors – has Watts ever run an organization – nothing is for free…

  12. Eric Parrish

    Once again Mr. Watts shows just how out of touch he is with what is best for Norwalk.

    While I do not disagree with programs for youth in Norwalk, his angle is all wrong and as usual, timing all wrong.

    Maybe for once he can be PROACTIVE in finding solutions instead of a REACTIVE loud mouth. He is an absolute embarrassment to the Council.


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