NORWALK, Conn. — Bruce Caslowitz, a longtime fixture on the Norwalk waterfront, is throwing in the towel after 36 years at the helm of the Norwalk Sailing School, a nonprofit provider of sailing instruction, rentals, and related activities.
Caslowitz said he made the decision after learning the City has decided to put the property out to bid. Up until now, the Sailing School, which caters to students and families, had an agreement with the City, which automatically renewed its lease every five years for $1 a year.
Caslowitz won’t be among the bidders.
“We’re also very small, nonprofit, and don’t want to mess with our tax status, to build the program bigger,” he said. “Plus, I’m 65 years old. I built it to a really good manageable size there. There’s been tons of support letters on Facebook, and, you know, it’s been pretty encouraging to see the things I’m getting from the community for the work I’ve done over 36 years.
“(The City is) in a position where they want money, and it was set up as a nonprofit. I can’t change overnight, I don’t want to change. And I’m going to let somebody who thinks they can make a profit there and the eight weeks that runs and pay, you know, pay expenses year-round.”
Josh Morgan, communications manager for Norwalk, said that this was an “open and fair process” and that Caslowitz was welcome to submit a proposal.
“We are very hopeful to receive a number of well-qualified proposals and have programming at the site this summer,” he said. “We know it’s a popular spot and we’ll be doing everything we can with whomever the vendor is to have programming up and running as soon as possible. Also, to be clear, Bruce is welcome to submit an RFP, but it is certainly his choice not to send one in. This is an open and fair process. We solicit proposals, a vendor is then chosen by a selection committee, and then later approved by the Common Council.”
The City’s bid calls for qualified vendors to “provide a sailing instruction program and a seasonal non-motorized watercraft program, at Calf Pasture Beach, during regular park hours.”
The site is expected to be open from mid-May to mid-October, with hours from 7 a.m. until sunset. In addition to the instruction program, canoes, kayaks, and paddle boards will be available to rent. The contract also calls for a 20% fee based on the previous month’s gross revenue or “a standard monthly rate” to be paid to the City for use of the property.
Caslowitz said the financial ramifications of that to the sailing school would be huge.
“We’re a nonprofit – we don’t even profit 20% a year, and they’re looking in the neighborhood of that each year from gross receipts,” he said. “In a good year, we ended up with $5,000 in the bank to pay off some winter bills. And you know, that’s it. It’s just not there for the money.”
For safety reasons, he also objected to the prospect of canoe rentals.
“(A canoe) was not really meant for Long Island Sound – you get one big boat wake over the top and it’s either going to swamp you if you’re sideways or tip you over,” Caslowitz said. “I saw a guy drown and I was the first one to call for help, back in the early 2000s on a canoe that took off from Calf Pasture Beach, where the guy who didn’t have a lifejacket and didn’t know how to swim. And, you know, it was heartbreaking.”
He said that he hopes that the new operator will be interested in the equipment on the site, because the nonprofit still owes money on their Small Business Administration loan that helped them rebuild after Superstorm Sandy.
“We still do owe money on our SBA loan, and we have to pay some of that off,” he said. “So I’m hoping the new operator is interested in a lot, if not most of the boats and equipment that’s there, so it’s turnkey, and some of my staff can get summer jobs and a lot of the kids and parents that have been calling me for summer program this year, can get in there and continue just with new faces, and maybe some of the old instructors’ faces and that’s what I’m hoping for – a smooth transition.”
Caslowitz said that he received touching messages from the community after he made the decision not to submit a proposal.
“(It’s a) huge, huge loss for the community,” he said.
He cited some letters and posts people made on Facebook.
“One of them says one of the reasons we moved to Norwalk was this,” he said. “Another family moved from Bethel to Norwalk so the kids were closer and they could do the summer sailing school. … It’s been called the jewel in Norwalk. It (would be) sad if it gets shut down, because no one’s gonna bid for it, or there’s not a qualified bidder. It’s sad, sad for all the people that contacted me daily – the kids, the camp, the heritage of this beach, bringing kids up through the sailing program and having become instructors and go on to college.”