Popular Fairfield Halloween event put on ice
Updated 10:38 am, Friday, October 13, 2017
FAIRFIELD — Apparently scared off by liability costs, the town has canceled a haunted house started two years ago by the former recreation director.
Fairfield Fright Nights, started in 2015 by then Parks and Recreation Director Gerald Lombardo, had taken place at the teen center on Old Dam Road, with proceeds going to the Fairfield Firefighters Charitable Foundation. The foundation, in turn, donated that money to three different local organizations.
“The event was getting more complex than originally intended,” First Selectman Mike Tetreau said. “It was proposed to bring in a paid vendor, rather than using volunteer labor. This complicates liability insurance, since the paid vendor needs to indemnify the town.”
While a proposal was made over the summer to Parks and Recreation Director Anthony Calabrese that perhaps the event should go out to bid, Public Works Superintendent Scott Bartlett said the intention was still to have the event staffed by volunteers. Many of the volunteers, he said, are teens who use the hours worked at the haunted house to fulfill community service requirements.
It was Scott Bartlett to whom Lombardo turned in 2015, when he looked to provide the event because Bartlett had for years hosted an elaborate haunted house at his own home. Bartlett’s son, Steven, a college student who was starting his own business, Prop Shop Productions, designed the haunted house layout, provided props and managed the “actors.” In exchange, Lombardo paid him $2,500 in 2015 and $3,500 in 2016, according to accounting reports provided by Calabrese.
The reports show $15,509 was spent in 2015 and $16,501 in 2016. The funds were taken from a trust fund operated by the Recreation Department, and not the town’s operating budget.
Scott Bartlett was the one who suggested to Calabrese that perhaps it was time for the event to go out to bid. When initially contacted for comment, Calabrese referred all questions to Tetreau.
Tetreau said going out to bid complicated the timeline for this year and said the decision was made if Prop Shop Productions wanted to rent the space to hold the event, they could. “It was not going to be a town-sponsored event due to the liability issues and the time for the bid process,” Tetreau said. “The final decision rests with me in consensus with Parks & Rec.”
The first selectman said it was his understanding the town’s liability insurance provider raised questions or concerns about the haunted house.
Prop Shop Productions had secured the necessary insurance binder, and the town was going to charge a rental fee of $300 a day, making it too costly to take on.
Town officials also offered to rent the facility for $1 if the firefighters foundation wanted to be the sponsor, but Bob Smith, the foundation’s head, said they were not prepared to do so that late in the game.
Smith said they were very disappointed by the event’s cancellation and the loss of money that would have been distributed to charitable groups. In 2016, The $9,000 received was split between the Police Explorers, the town’s Youth Council and Al’s Angels.
“We were part of this from the beginning,” Smith said, approached by Lombardo to participate because of the charitable foundation. “I’m disappointed we won’t be able to help out any charities this year.”
Smith said they were all set to begin the set-up of the haunted house on Sept. 22, when it was decided by the town to abandon Fright Nights.
Lombardo approached Scott Bartlett in 2015 because he was looking to come up with a “town-wide attraction,” that could become an annual tradition that appealed to a variety of age groups.
Firefighters and Explorers volunteered their time to paint wooden panels black to serve as the “rooms” in the haunted house, and those panels were kept in storage at the Recreation Department to be re-used every year. Youth Council members volunteered as tour guides and actors during the event, which included a hayride from the parking lot used for the event at the Kiwanis ball field.
David Becker, a board of finance member and a volunteer firefighter, said he’s not all that big on Halloween. However, he said, he’s left with questions about the Fright Nights cancellation. He recently raised the issue at a finance board meeting.
“I had heard about something ‘going on’ with the haunted house,” Becker said. “For me, it’s sort of one of those things that might have been perfect for the community.”
If liability is the main issue, Becker said, why is it only an issue with this particular event. “Why that, and only that,” he said. “Is the half marathon next? They allow all sorts of things on Sherman Green.” Last year, he said, there was a very popular synthetic ice rink at Sherman Green, and the town holds a tree lighting at the Town Hall green.
Tetreau said there is liability for all town events, to some degree. He said he believes the ice rink liability was covered by the vendor. “The tree lighting is a town event with no outside contractors or vendors,” Tetreau said. The tree lighting features hundreds of children and their parents on the green, counting down to the tree lighting once it gets dark, and awaiting Santa and Mrs. Claus’ arrival at the green on a fire truck.
“It’s frustrating,” Becker said, and upsetting local charities will no longer benefit from an event that many other towns put on. The Youth Council, for example, put its share toward college scholarships for local students. “It’s like the town is letting little things, that are relatively minor issues and addressable, become roadblocks,” he said.
Becker, who grew up in Fairfield, said many things have changed over the years, but one thing that hasn’t is the community’s attitude toward charities. “It’s still been the charitable component, the volunteer component,” he said. This kind of trend, Becker said, “is going to disrupt the fabric of what this community is about.”
He said he’s been given some of the numbers for putting on Fright Nights and contends it’s been done for “a fraction of what it would have cost otherwise.”