Norwalk parents organize to keep sailing school open

The Norwalk Sailing School facility, Sunday at Calf Pasture Beach. (Claire Schoen)

NORWALK, Conn. — A grassroots group of Norwalk parents expects to be running a sailing school this summer on Calf Pasture Beach, continuing a tradition that reportedly goes back more than half a century, in spite of the unplanned departure of long-time operator Bruce Caslowitz.

Norwalk Sailing School LLC was the only bidder responding to a City request for proposals, participants say.

Caslowitz, who ran the school for 36 years, opted not to compete for the location after the City declined to simply renew the $1 a year lease to his nonprofit for another 5-year term.

“We were lucky that most of the staff that worked with Bruce in the last year are coming back. Not all of them can make it because it’s kind of late in the season,” Nodira Isamiddinova, managing member for the newly formed LLC, said.

Isamiddinova said when she heard what was happening, she reached out to Caslowitz. “I just thought it’s a shame that it’s because of the bureaucracy that you know the community will lose this resource, which has been around since the 60s,” she said.

Nicholas Bova and Edward Tatton III helped write the bid, she said.

While the group doesn’t have official City approval yet – the Common Council will have to vote on it – Norwalk Sailing School LLC was given a letter of intent Thursday recognizing theirs as the winning bid, Isamiddinova said.

Norwalk Communications Director Josh Morgan confirmed that a meeting had been held Thursday. “The RFP Review Committee has made a recommendation and referred this to the Common Council for review and discussion,” he said in an email.


‘Not not-for-profit’

Controversy ensued last year when the City opted not to renew Caslowitz’ lease. Morgan called it important for the City to have standardized agreements at its facilities and public spaces.

“The proper agreement for this type of use would be a license agreement – not a lease agreement – which will protect the business, City, and taxpayers and will allow for equitable use of the space,” he said.

The City’s RFP specified that a vendor would pay a 20% fee based on the previous month’s gross revenue or “a standard monthly rate” for use of the property.

Caslowitz and former Recreation and Parks Department Director Mike Mocciae said the school didn’t make a profit. The season is too short, Caslowitz said.

Caslowitz nonprofit files 990-N postcard forms with the federal government each year, which means it’s  had “gross receipts not greater than $50,000.”

Mayor Harry Rilling, at the April 5 meeting of the Board of Estimate and Taxation, said that other possible vendors should have the opportunity to bid on the City-owned property, as, “We don’t want to have any thoughts of selecting one vendor to the exclusion of others.”

He had heard that Caslowitz charged “somewhere in the area of $2,000” for sailing lessons, he said. While Caslowitz reported, “they barely make a profit,” Rilling was “relatively sure that people are paid a salary out of those monies… so it’s a business, it’s not not-for-profit.”

Caslowitz told NancyOnNorwalk that he charged $425 for a two-week camp. Private lessons were $30 an hour plus the boat rental, and a three-hour rental was $30-90. He called this about $150 private lessons, plus Norwalk residents got a 10% discount.

“It wasn’t a cash cow for anybody. And it will never be a cash cow,” Mocciae said.

“There was a deed when this property was given to the to the city that there wasn’t going to be commercialized,” Caslowitz said.

The BET in its April 5 meeting authorized a $25,000 expense to buy a building owned by Caslowitz’ non-profit but built on City land. While it was reported that Caslowitz was satisfied with the price, Caslowitz told NancyOnNorwalk that while he agreed to the figure, “I’m not happy with it. I’m not happy with anything that’s going on with the City.”

“We’re nonprofit, but just like the Coast Guard Auxiliary, the Coast Guard building next to us. Is that going to go up for re-lease next?” he asked.

Mocciae also said the Coast Guard owns its building on the beach. “They’re not providing any classes, they haven’t done anything for a year and a half,” he said.

It’s a federal organization, even if it’s an auxiliary, and it helps keep the coast safe, Rilling said. The City is considering putting the Norwalk Police marine division into the building because its station on North Water Street tends to flood, ruining equipment, he added.

Caslowitz said Wednesday that he’s still waiting for the $25,000. He put $27,000 of supplies into the building after Superstorm Sandy and had donated labor to rebuild it, he said.

He had borrowed $62,000 after Sandy and still owes $50,000, he said. So the sale of the building would only cover half that, and he still has boats and equipment.


‘Not a handshake’

Norwalk Chief of Staff Laoise King recently said that under Mocciae, “many very popular (Recs and Parks) programs were held together by handshakes and personal relationships.”

Caslowitz took exception to that remark.

It wasn’t a “handshake,” he said; he had to come to the Council Recreation and Parks Committee every five years and answer any questions that were asked. If any other nonprofit had wanted it, “the city would have looked at it.”

The RFP and its 20% “skim” of gross sales was ridiculous and “we never even profited close to 10 percent,” he said.

NancyOnNorwalk heard a rumor that Caslowitz used to sleep in a camper parked outside the sailing school, more-or-less living on City property.

That turned out to be one of the things Caslowitz was unhappy with then-Director of Recreation and Parks Nick Roberts about. Roberts, who has left the City for another job, told him last summer that he couldn’t do that anymore, Caslowitz said.

Caslowitz had a camper there from 2003 to 2020, he said. Sometimes he stayed on his sailboat in SoNo but sometimes he stayed in the camper, where he could keep an eye on the kids out on the water. He also used it for an office, a safe place to keep money, and he could protect his equipment out on the sand.

Ballplayers would come over after games and urinate on the boats, he said. He even saw people pee on the Shea McGrath memorial. People also sat on boats.

“I’ve seen everything in the years I was there,” he said. “…Sometimes I’d stay, and sometimes I go back to my boat.”

City officials declined to comment.

All Roberts did was “just try to dictate craziness to me and it was always done the way I’ve always done it,” Caslowitz said.

Operating under the City’s current guidelines would just be too stressful and, “I’m 65 years old, I’ve got a 52-foot sailing boat down in Florida that sails from Connecticut to Florida every winter. I’m just gonna leave it down there and do charters and be a captain,” he said.


‘Now they can move ahead’

Isamiddinova said the new group will buy Caslowitz’ equipment. Now that it has the letter from the City, it can start hiring staff members and advertising the service.

“Since Nick Roberts left, the new acting director Ken Hughes has kept a reasonable head and helped push things quickly to this point of accepting NSS LLC’s BID and now they can move ahead to open youth registrations and offer my staff summer jobs,” Caslowitz said. “My hat is off to Ken Hughes, {Norwalk Chief of Operations and Public Works} Anthony Carr and {Deputy Corporation Counsel} Jeff Spahr.”

The new group has “decided on all the boats they want to keep. I sold off all the other boats, and I’m just giving them all the supplies and tools and everything ready to go,” Caslowitz said.

The camps on average service about 30 kids and over the season “a lot of kids” go through, Isamiddinova said. But it’s also about renting kayaks, paddleboards and wind surfing equipment, a resource for people, “accessible to everybody who comes to calf pasture beach and the rates are pretty affordable as well.”

The school operates off U.S. sailing safety manuals and the staff understands weather issues, she said.

Isamiddinova said the waterfront is one of the things that attracted her to Norwalk. She had intended to take sailing lessons and maybe her kids could, too, “that’s how I got here, that’s how I heard about the program and the whole situation around them not being able to continue.”

Caslowitz is advising.

“I’m happy to help them,” Caslowitz said. “I’m all about a smooth transition and giving as much of my knowledge I can to the next person and given them a great deal on all the boats and everything.”

Freelance reporter Kelly Kultys contributed to this story.

The Norwalk Sailing School facility, Sunday at Calf Pasture Beach. (Claire Schoen)


Jason Milligan April 30, 2021 at 6:17 am

My daughter attended this sailing school. She loved it. It was affordable and charming. It is one of the things that gives Norwalk its character, so of coarse the dementors from New Haven want to scrap it.

Hometown Harry has very few people from Norwalk in charge any more. Did the Citizens sign up for a complete overhaul of the city?

Maybe Spinnaker or McClutchy could jam a few hundred apartments in place of the sailing school.

Steve Mann April 30, 2021 at 10:24 am

Where did the mayor get the idea that not-for-profit entities can not pay salaries? In fact, both state and federal taxing authorities allow for “reasonable” salaries to be paid to NFP employees.

Bruce Caslowitz April 30, 2021 at 10:25 am

I would like to know who told Mayor Rillings that we were charging $2000. For sailing lessons! While we had THE LOWEST LESSON and RENTAL Fees in the area and maybe,the whole country.
Private lessons were $30.hr plus boat rental fee.

JOE DeFRANCO - East Norwalk April 30, 2021 at 10:33 am

A comment was quoted in the article that the Coast Guard Auxiliary at Calf Pasture Beach is not providing any classes and hasn’t done anything for a year and half. Actually, during this period of COVID precautions, Auxiliary Flotilla 72 has continued to conduct boating safety education classes for the public and training classes for its members by utilizing virtual (e.g. Zoom) platforms. Monthly business meetings and frequent planning discussions have also been conducted this way. Flotilla 72’s fixed radio, located in the training center, is maintained in a state of readiness for use if needed to serve as part of a regional emergency network. Free vessel safety examinations have been performed regularly in response to requests by individual boat owners, yacht clubs, and marine businesses in the area. The building continues to provide safe storage for textbooks, manuals, safety literature, members’ personal protective equipment, and members’ rescue & survival gear supporting those activities.

Throughout this period of pandemic restrictions, the Coast Guard Auxiliary Norwalk Flotilla has continued direct support of the US Coast Guard as well as carrying out the Auxiliary’s primary mission of promoting public boating safety in our area.

jlg April 30, 2021 at 3:24 pm

is there a longer transcript available from the April 5th meeting? It’s absolutely pathetic, given the context of the quote, that our mayor doesn’t understand how non-profits operate.

M Foster April 30, 2021 at 3:27 pm

Bruce, Pretty sure you taught me to sail in the late seventies, Thank You! I still enjoy an occasional sail. These schools and camps offer lifetime skills and fun adventures.
I also took the safe boating course at the Auxiliary in the eighties. It would be a shame to lose these shoreline treasures.
Good luck!

Red headed movie star April 30, 2021 at 4:01 pm

Thanks to the parents for stepping up to the plate and thank you Bruce for the years you have provided a reasonably priced sailing school. I wish you fair winds and sunny weather.

Bryan Meek April 30, 2021 at 4:53 pm

@Steve. You might be surprised to know that there are a multitude of NFP CXOs that make in excess of 7 figures. Large hospital managers. Global charities. THere are also 10s of 1000s who make salaries working for these entities that some would say don’t pay their fair share. It’s a total scam set up by Washington insiders and their families and friends so that they don’t have to pay their fair share. That’s for us saps.

Bruce Caslowitz April 30, 2021 at 5:28 pm

I would like to know who told Mayor Rillings that we charged $2000. For sailing lessons.
More like $150. For 3 hours of private family instruction for up to 3 people.
May be cheapest in the country.

Tysen Canevari April 30, 2021 at 9:47 pm

The mayor and his highly paid assistant have no clue about the city of Norwalk. When Lou Canevari deeded the beach to the city it stated that no for profit businesses could operate at the beach except for one: the snack bar. Technically, the store Ripkas operates in the lockers area is against the deed. So you see Miss Assistant and Mr Mayor you both know nothing about your own town. Your reorg didnt filter out mess it brought about chaos. None of your new cronies know anying about Norwalk and its history! You guys chased out a non profit that has operated at the beach for 36 years! YES 36 years. I dont see any letters here applauding you for that. Most of your new department heads dont even live in Norwalk. They run Norwalk from their home offices in remote towns because city hall is closed. I was on 2 sold out planes last week but you cant go into city hall in Norwalk CT. JOKE

John Miller May 1, 2021 at 4:54 pm

As a native and life long Norwalk resident (except for my time in the military, including Vietnam), I do not recollect ever seeing the level of concentrated, unchecked and unaccountable power or a display of condescending arrogance and outright disrespect directed towards the citizens of Norwalk that is currently on display at the highest levels in City Hall. Norwalk used to be a nice place to live. Not so much anymore.

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