by Joseph R. Marfuggi and Rick Porth

Visitors to the riverfront parks notice the difference immediately. “I’ve been in this park before,” Dan Flynn said with a smile. “But there’s a new feeling here today.” As he spoke, four young boys with fishing poles rode their bicycles toward the bank of the Connecticut River. A Riverfront Ranger pedaled his bicycle slowly along a Riverwalk. In the distance, an excursion boat carried a large group of passengers on a leisurely summer-afternoon cruise.

Flynn strolled toward the river’s edge, hoping for a better view of the youngsters who were learning to row in sculls that his private foundation had contributed to a community rowing program. He noticed that Hartford’s Riverside Park sparkled in the sunlight. Grass was freshly mowed and trimmed. Riverwalks were clean of silt and litter. “The place looks better, ” he said. “And it feels better.”

That positive feeling is a result of ground-breaking partnership agreements signed last January, which assigned responsibility for riverfront parks in the city of Hartford, Connecticut, and the town of East Hartford to Riverfront Recapture, a nonprofit organization. A separate agreement with the Metropolitan District Commission, the organization that provides water and sewer services for Hartford and seven neighboring suburbs, made the MDC responsible for maintaining the parks. The MDC also funds a park-ranger program administered by Riverfront Recapture.

These management agreements could be considered the logical next step in the informal arrangement that Riverfront Recapture has had with the municipal governments of Hartford and East Hartford since 1981, when the effort to restore public access to the Connecticut River began. Acting on behalf of the municipalities, Riverfront Recapture has raised more than $42 million to design and build a network of riverfront parks and public recreational facilities on land owned by the municipalities along the river’s edge.

But in Connecticut communities that pride themselves on strong local identity and traditions that date back more than 350 years, the suggestion that local riverfront parks should be managed as part of a regional system was viewed with more than a little suspicion. Some people in Hartford and East Hartford feared losing control of their new parks. Residents of other towns resented being asked to pay higher water rates to support parks that aren’t theirs.

A Working Plan

A year later, the controversy has faded, and the riverfront is attracting record numbers of people who, like Dan Flynn, are responding favorably to the positive new feeling in the parks. Now that the management plan is working, it’s worth remembering how the riverfront park system became a regional asset deserving support — even by residents whose communities are not situated along the Connecticut River.

The effort to reclaim the Connecticut River’s historic role as a force in the community’s daily life began in 1980, when corporate, political, and community leaders came together for an all-day workshop that looked at how other cities had used waterfronts as keys to revitalization. A year later, these same leaders created a nonprofit organization, Riverfront Recapture, to champion a waterfront revival in metropolitan Hartford.

The challenge was formidable. A system of flood-control dykes had walled off Hartford and East Hartford from the river in the 1940s, and an interstate highway created another major barrier in the ’60s. Together, these two man-made forces made it impossible to get from downtown Hartford to the river.

Although it had an ambitious agenda, Riverfront Recapture originally considered itself an advocacy group. It thought it would create a master plan for park development and the restoration of public access to the river, and someone else would implement the plan. It planned to generate pilot programs to demonstrate the potential for riverfront recreation, and allow someone else to run them. Riverfront Recapture’s ultimate goal was to put itself out of business. Once access to the river was restored and parks were operational, Riverfront Recapture believed its work would be done.

One by one, it became obvious that each of those assumptions was wrong. When no one else stepped forward to implement the master plan, Riverfront Recapture began raising funds — first from local corporations, then from the state of Connecticut — to hire architects and a contractor, and oversaw the entire design and construction process. As incremental progress was made, new park facilities became the property — and responsibility — of the municipality that owned the land.

More of the riverfront has become accessible every year since the mid 1980s. To introduce urban residents to waterfront recreation and attract people into the new parks, Riverfront Recapture raised funds from business and foundations for recreational programming. A successful season of rowing classes demonstrated that it was possible to teach inexperienced adults and teenagers how to use sculls on the river, but there were no takers when it was time to spin off these programs. So Riverfront Recapture developed the capacity to offer a full calendar of activities: fishing clinics and tournaments, rowing classes and regattas, festivals and concerts.

Before long, it was evident that the park and recreation departments in Hartford and East Hartford lacked the resources to take on a new riverfront park system that continued to grow each year. Municipal budgets were shrinking, and fewer people were being asked to do more work. Parks with well-established constituencies would naturally take precedence over more isolated riverfront parks in areas that had not been visited in more than half a century.

Tough Choices

“Politically, it was an easy call,” said Robert M. DeCrescenzo, the former mayor of East Hartford, and a strong supporter of the riverfront parks. “We had limited resources, and when I had the difficult choice of either lining the little-league fields or removing silt from the Riverwalks, I’d line the little-league fields.”

Removing silt from walkways and parking lots is not in the job descriptions of most park and recreation departments. But it’s a critical part of the ongoing maintenance of riverfront parks in Hartford and East Hartford, which exist entirely within a flood plain. Flooding occurs each spring as snow melts upstream in Vermont and New Hampshire, or during any season of the year after extended periods of rain.

When the water recedes, a thick layer of silt remains. Historically, Connecticut River-valley farmers welcomed the silt, which made their soil especially fertile. In paved portions of the park, however, silt is a major nuisance — dusty and granular when dry and thick and muddy when wet.

More than any other issue, silt removal grew to symbolize the need to manage the riverfront parks differently. “Before a big event,” said Craig Mergins, Riverfront Recapture’s director of programs and operations, “we’d bring in the Connecticut Prison Association to help shovel silt from Riverwalks and boat ramps. The municipal crews were stretched too thin to get the job done.”

More Resources Would Be Needed

By early 1993, enough park improvements were in place to underscore the fact that a management plan for a fully developed riverfront park system would require more resources than municipalities could provide. Riverfront Recapture believed that the ultimate success of the parks depended upon four key ingredients: maintenance, security, programming, and marketing. But in 1993, it was unclear who would be responsible for delivering those services, much less pay for them.

Riverfront Recapture, still convinced that its mission included putting itself out of business, took responsibility for developing a realistic and effective long-term management plan for the parks. For more than a year, a consultant and an intern from local Trinity College researched management and financing structures that supported successful waterfront projects in other cities.

Nothing quite matched Hartford riverfront, where parks were being developed in two municipalities on opposite banks of a powerful river prone to floods. In other regions, a county might manage parks that crossed community borders, but Connecticut did away with county government in the 1950s, so that was not an option.

Nor was it realistic to expect the state to absorb the riverfront into its park system. That trial balloon was floated — and quickly deflated. The state had provided more than $15 million toward the design and construction of riverfront parks, but was not willing to fund maintenance and programming costs, too. State parks were just coming out of an extended period of deferred maintenance, and officials pointed out that the state would need all of its available resources to operate its existing parks.

During this period of study and discussion, a growing consensus began to favor involving the Metropolitan District Commission in the ongoing management of the riverfront parks. The MDC had a successful track record of managing trails and public recreation facilities around Hartford reservoirs, as well as a major stake in the Connecticut River.

Over the past 25 years, the MDC has spent tens of millions of dollars to upgrade sewage treatment facilities and, as a result, the quality of the river has improved dramatically. In 1990, the MDC asked voters in its eight member towns to approve an $80 million project to separate storm and sanitary sewers located near the river. The vote came at a time when Connecticut was facing great economic uncertainty. Major employers were downsizing, real estate values were falling, and local voters were turning down municipal budgets.

But the MDC, with the support of bass fishermen, environmentalists, and groups like Riverfront Recapture, mounted an impressive campaign to educate voters about how the $80 million expenditure would enhance the effort to clean up the Connecticut River, making it available for recreation. The results surprised even the strongest clean-river advocates. Voters approved the referendum, even in towns not on the river, by a margin of four to one.

“Many of us had believed for years that it made sense for the MDC to plat a key role in riverfront parks management, either as a full partner or a major participant,” said John H. Reige, who presided over Riverfront Recapture’s Board of Directors. When planners suggested a management model that gave the MDC full responsibility for managing the parks, however, the MDC said this was not a realistic option.

The realization was growing that the community viewed Riverfront Recapture as the appropriate group to manage the park system. The organization had developed and built the parks and had developed recreational programming that was attracting diverse audiences from throughout the region.

In mid-1995, after a year and a half of discussion, Riverfront Recapture’s Board unanimously voted to restructure itself as the umbrella organization that would manage the riverfront parks, with one important condition. Riverfront Recapture would work in cooperation with an unnamed “regional partner,” which would participate in the governance of the parks, and provide annual funding for maintenance and security.

Fostering Cooperation

There was no precedent for this kind of public-private park management in Connecticut, so Riverfront Recapture turned to the Capitol Region Partnership (CRP), a newly formed consortium of organizations with a regional focus. The Capitol Region Council of Governments and the MDC were among six members that hoped to find new ways to foster cooperation. The CRP agreed to convene a meeting for business, political, and community leaders to focus on the riverfront’s management challenge and the parks’ potential payoff to the region.

The more than 50 people who attended that meeting in late 1995 agreed that the community should take an in-depth look at Riverfront Recapture’s request for a regional partner that could provide much needed resources for the park system. So the CRP created the Ad Hoc Riverfront Council (AHRC) to examine the management issue in detail and make a specific recommendation.

R. Nelson Griebel, president of BankBoston’s west region, led the Ad Hoc Riverfront Council’s yearlong process to review the conclusions that the Riverfront Recapture team had reached. “If we wanted the region to support the final recommendations enthusiastically,” said Griebel, “it was important to discuss the ideas with a larger group. We couldn’t just say unilaterally that it wasn’t feasible to make the riverfront a state park.”

After a year of work, the AHRC reached a conclusion remarkably similar to the one reached by Riverfront Recapture’s Board. It unanimously endorsed a management structure that gave overall responsibility for the parks to Riverfront Recapture, with the MDC maintaining the parks and providing funding for park rangers.

It took an additional six months to draft detailed legal documents dealing with issues of liability and control and spelling out areas of responsibility. Another six months were needed to sell the concept to the effected communities and MDC’s commissioners, who were being asked to raise water rates by an average of $6 per year, per household, to pay for riverfront maintenance and security.

Management Agreement Finally Signed

On January 26, 1998 — after nearly five years of study and intense discussion involving dozens of people — the city of Hartford, the town of East Hartford, Riverfront Recapture, and the MDC signed the new parks management agreements. Under these agreements, Riverfront Recapture remained a private, nonprofit corporation that could continue to receive contributions from corporations, foundations, and citizens to help fund its operating budget, which included increased expenditures for recreational programming and marketing of the park system.

The two municipalities also agreed to make annual contributions to the organization, and gave Riverfront Recapture the ability to generate earned income by entering into contracts with vendors within the parks. The exhaustive effort that went into shaping those agreements proved worthwhile in just the first season of activity. In 1998, the riverfront parks welcomed more than 475,000 visitors to safe, well-tended parks for a full calendar year of activities:

  • The world’s richest sports-fishing tournament, the Wal-Mart FLW Tour, brought top professional anglers to the riverfront for a nationally televised competition that offered $1 million in prizes.
  • Festivals like Riverfest and Mark Twain Days drew crowds for family entertainment, water-skiing shows, cane-pole fishing, fence painting, riverboat rides, and fireworks.
  • Concerts attracted music lovers of all ages and backgrounds for jazz, rock, flamenco, classical, and rap.
  • An annual regatta brought rowers from six states, with registration increasing 22 percent from the previous year.
  • Six hundred athletes participated in a triathlon, including a swim in the river.

This summer, after more than 15 years of planning, negotiating, and construction, the centerpiece of the riverfront project will open to the public. A landscaped plaza, running the length of the interstate highway, will reunite downtown Hartford with its riverfront. Grassy terraces will descend from the plaza to the river’s edge, creating amphitheater seating for 2,000 people. A bulkhead at the base of the terraces will bring excursion-boat service into downtown. And the plaza will connect with a spacious promenade on Founders Bridge, linking riverfront parks in Hartford and East Hartford.

“The park system will expand considerably in 1999 with the addition of the downtown facilities,” said Anthony Gallichio, chairman of the MDC. “That’s why it was important for us to have a year’s experience under our belts before the most visible portion of the project becomes available to the public. Now we’re prepared for what we believe will be a huge increase in our number of park visitors in 1999.”

Goals Achieved

Two of the major goals that Riverfront Recapture set in 1981 have been achieved: public access to new amenities and activities along the Connecticut River is improving the quality of life for everyone who lives and works in metropolitan Hartford, and the new riverfront is becoming a destination for out-of-town visitors. A third goal, leveraging public investment in the riverfront to stimulate economic development on land adjacent to the parks, is within reach.

Phoenix Home Life, The Travelers, and Connecticut Natural Gas have proposed an extensive mixed-use development on land neighboring the landscaped plaza that Riverfront Recapture is building over Interstate 91. As this structure opens access to a beautiful American Heritage river, it is transforming underutilized surface parking lots into one of the most desirable development sites in New England.

All along the riverfront parks of Hartford and East Hartford, there is new interest in developing open land and reusing old buildings, like the factory where Sam Colt built “the gun that won the West.” The Science Center of Connecticut is designing a new facility on the East Hartford riverfront next to a planned regional magnet school, which will focus on science and technology.

Excitement is building about the future of Hartford’s riverfront and the role it will play in the revitalization of the city and the rest of the region. Not only do citizens feel that the potential is unlimited, they are confident that the riverfront parks are well-managed and exciting public spaces.

Reprinted with permission from Parks & Recreation magazine, January 1999