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Norwalk Sailing School owner says he won’t respond to City’s RFP

Norwalk youth learn to sail last summer at the Norwalk Sailing School, then-operated out of Calf Pasture Beach. (Contributed)

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.”

16 comments

Tysen Canevari March 30, 2021 at 6:40 am

Welcome to Norwalk Bruce. Practicality is not one of our better assets here. What a shame. Someone does good for the community and we feel the need to chase you out. The flag pole at Calf Pasture is dedicated to my grandfather. Should i assume I will get a bill for rent soon? Nothing short of a disgrace this is! Harry, please do the common sense thing and reverse this decision.

Janine March 30, 2021 at 11:20 am

My kids learned to sail there and was very fond of renting kayaks and canoes in later year, all at very reasonable prices. The staff and proprietor were always courteous and conscientious. Very sad to see him leave. Shame on the city.

Michael McGuire March 30, 2021 at 1:02 pm

Sad Day, the end of an institution and a real loss for the community.

I was wondering, how did the City come up with a 20% of gross sales as a prudent lease rate? The reason I ask is that in real estate percentage rent leases like this are more like 5-10%.

Did anyone at the City level do any checking before hand on “typical pricing” for programs like this? If so, were those programs durable and of consistent quality?

Did the City factor in the money it made on parking and beach pass fees they are making given the draw of the Norwalk Sailing School?

Prior to the City making this decision, was there any interest by other vendors wanting to have an opportunity to bid on this? And at 20%?

I’m hoping someone at the City will address these simple questions. Perhaps by doing so we can avoid an ‘Oak Hills Park restaurant’ like fiasco being visited on the new Norwalk Sailing program.

Oh, and please listen to Bruce regarding canoes, there is a reason Eskimos did not use them.

Heidi J Mangels March 30, 2021 at 2:15 pm

I’m saddened to read Mr. Caslowitz won’t be running the Norwalk Sailing School this season. I have rented both kayaks and SUPs from the NSS at very fair hourly rates. I can only imagine what a for-profit vendor will charge, making renting the equipment cost prohibitive for many. The staff at NSS was always very friendly and helpful, providing excellent instruction on equipment use. I hope whoever wins the bid employs staff from previous seasons – and maintains the current pricing structure.
Mr. Caslowitz, thank you for all you’ve done with NSS and for our city. You have been an institution for the past 36 seasons, and I truly appreciate all that you did. I’d love to read that the city has reconsidered and you’ll be running NSS after all.

jlg March 30, 2021 at 6:17 pm

i had sent this not to our mayor in July2020 when word of this first came out:

Mayor Rilling,
Community Sailing Programs are important ways to give residents access to the water. I don’t know exactly what the economics of NSS are, but i do have experience running a program like this.

It is a labor of love and no one is going to get rich or make any money doing this. In the case of the org I am on the board of, we do lots of fundraising and then we do (it)(sic) more fundraising. We are also a 501c3 and our motive is to get people sailing -> not to make money. Most town sailing programs operate this way and require generous benefactors and town participation (read: town money) to survive.

If bids come in claiming there will be a financial benefit to the town i would be very skeptical. These programs usually run loss plus. There are community programs at the other end of the state that may offer a blueprint for what a program like this should look like and how they get disadvantaged kids (and adults) out on the water for little to no cost to them.

There are grants for things like this that often sit unused and sometimes boats are available from the service academys and state schools.”

He did respond and basically said this was just a necessary procedural move, which i totally understand. I don’t think he made this decision and is relying on the expertise of his parks and recs leader.

That being said, our city has a track record of getting sucked into projects like the vets park hockey rink/tent with projected economics no one in their right mind would believe. it is therefore laughable that the town spokesman, josh morgan, is suggesting Norwalk is not in the business of handing out long-term sweetheart deals.

Based solely on the RFP, the city seems to think there is a ton of money to be made renting kayaks, canoes, and paddleboards, with little mention of actual goals for a sailing program. They do not blink when they ask for 20% of monthly revenue, a low fee structure, an entire page of insurance requirements, the right to interview key staff members, and a dawn til dusk policy with a requirement someone is there that entire time (presumably to collect revenue).

It’s no wonder the current operator is walking away from this.

our ‘leaders’ need to figure out a way to make this work without chasing non-existent dollars.

Tysen Canevari March 30, 2021 at 9:30 pm

The city should be naming the building after him instead of asking him to bid. Can you step up Mr. Mayor please!

Kathleen J Finnegan March 31, 2021 at 8:52 am

I second everything that jlg has said. Tragic and shortsighted to say the least. I have knowledge of youth and community sailing programs in CT, non-profits Soundwaters in Stamford to New England Science and Sailing in Stonington and many private junior sailing programs along Long Island Sound. In contrast Stamford provides a continuing lease at Cove Island Beach for $1 a year to Soundwaters who created an environmental community center and community sailing programs for urban youth. Soundwaters is a gem that has given so much to the community. What does Norwalk aim to gain? A small monthly revenue stream?

Small community sailing programs, that offer access to the water, are critical in coastal areas because public access to the water is so limited and the cost of private clubs and their programs is prohibitive to most. In a time of significant discussion of environmental justice, the climate crisis and poor water quality in Long Island Sound, an effort RIGHT NOW to put this service out to bid is NONSENSICAL AND SHORTSIGHTED. The city should strive to increase affordable access to the Sound, not restrict it. Any effort to take 20% of proceeds will thwart access to much needed recreation, education and employment.

In my experience, waterfront programs strive to break even! They cannot provide equipment, supervision, instruction and safe boating with the expectation of profit sharing. Every single sailing program I am aware of raises funds to “stay afloat”. The model the city seems to hope for makes no sense. Did the city consider the costs of a tragic accident vs the reliability of the current program??? Did they consider working with the current provider on a long-term plan, maybe even a broader program of recreation and environmental education with expanded benefit for all taxpayers of Norwalk? Many organizations have the roadmap, none would be able to hand over 20% of their revenue without raising the costs to the users and thus restricting access even further when from a moral standpoint the goal of the city should be to expand use of public assets like the beach and the Sound!

I am happy to discuss with City officials, if they really care about access to the water and the value of community boating and sailing as a matter of social and environmental justice. Any takers?

Steve Mann March 31, 2021 at 9:57 am

Mayor Rilling, how about stepping up and giving the kids a break? Norwalk bills itself as a charming community with a maritime environment. How much can possibly be at stake that can’t be passed along to private developers for the privilege of making mega millions in Norwalk?

Bryan Meek April 1, 2021 at 7:44 am

It’s April first and we still have no indication or plans for any summer activities. Screw the kids.

Joe April 1, 2021 at 1:46 pm

Good luck getting an answer from out mayor. He hasn’t been at city hall since covid , still getting full salary. Even tho every other town and city hall is open. He won’t miss an opportunity to cut a ribbon though when a camera is around. 🤡

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