Hartford, Connecticut

A public-private partnership reversed a decade of neglect in Hartford’s central park through successful capital projects, diverse programs and effective fundraising. With the financially strapped city assuming responsibility for basic maintenance, the partnership has raised six million dollars in public and private investment for improvements and programs that include jazz concerts, tours, and an innovative environmental education program

Project Background

Bushnell Park, in the heart of downtown Hartford, was the first park in the United States planned by a city. The 37-acre park was developed in the mid-19th century by Horace Bushnell, a contemporary of Frederick Law Olmstead. By 1980, Bushnell Park was suffering from physical dilapidation that was inhibiting healthy use.

The Bushnell Park Foundation was founded in 1981 to spearhead the park’s restoration. The foundation first developed a master plan that established specific improvement projects. The group’s board of directors, made up mostly of corporate leaders, decided to contract with a private consulting firm to staff the organization. It then raised $40,000 to restore each of the park’s four entry-ways. Other physical improvement projects included: new lighting; renovation of a pumping station into a public art gallery; the $1.5 million restoration of the Soldier’s and Sailor’s Memorial Arch; installation of new walkways and benches; construction of an outdoor stage for theater, concerts and dance performances; and planting over 450 trees.

Funding

The foundation has raised funds by effectively leveraging public and private sources. Of the $6 million it has raised, about half has come from public sources, including state and city agencies. Almost $3 million of the public amount came from the Hartford Trust Fund, a restricted municipal fund (total current value: $16 million) which was established in the early 1980’s with proceeds from a land sale and is overseen by the city treasurer. Private funding has come from corporate and philanthropic sources, as well as individuals who have “adopted” trees, bought merchandise, or made other contributions.

Despite its private fundraising success, the foundation continues to rely on the city for basic maintenance and partial capital support. For example, the city will contribute a third of the $1.2 million cost of a Children’s Play and Learning Environment and improvements to the park’s carousel.

Impacts

Today the park receives almost one million visitors every year, up almost 20% from a decade ago. Its restored landscape and landmark structures, as well as diverse programs and events, attract everyone from lunchtime office workers to neighborhood children and suburban visitors on the weekends.

“Park Roots” teaches Hartford’s teachers how to use Bushnell Park as a classroom for math, history, science and arts. The five-year-old program is now used in 16 of the city’s 32 schools and involves more than 2,000 school children in such activities as learning the history behind the restored Soldier’s and Sailor’s Memorial Arch, and solving the mystery of the river buried under the park. Schools pay a fee for materials and transportation to and from the park. “Park Roots” is underwritten by United Technologies.

The foundation realized early on that capital projects alone were not enough to increase and sustain park use. The group, whose board now reflects greater community representation and diversity, began sponsoring jazz concerts and art shows in the pump house. They also created diverse programs, including free walking tours led by volunteer docents, events, and festivals.

Lessons Learned

In bringing lights to the park, the foundation recognized the need to go beyond planning and fundraising into project management. The city initially wanted high-intensity lights, but the foundation convinced them that softer lights with historic lamps was more in keeping with the park’s character. To ensure success, the foundation became project manager, and oversaw its implementation. In the same vein, the foundation used proceeds from “Adopt a Tree” programs to hire a private arborist to supplement city park maintenance.

The foundation’s success mirrors that of the Central Park Conservancy, on which it modeled itself in part. The park’s deterioration had created a sense of urgency that enabled the foundation to develop a vision of what the park had been and could become again. Foundation staff cite four key success variables:

  • A comprehensive but feasible master plan enabled the foundation to restore the park incrementally, carving out manageable projects and demonstrating credibility and positive change;
  • A strong, effective, and increasingly diverse board helped to mobilize support and bring resources to the park;
  • Physical restoration became a vehicle for effective programming and events;
  • The foundation broadened the role of the park from simply a downtown park serving lunchtime crowds, into a metropolitan resource with diverse and high quality programs.

Contact: Sanford Parisky, Managing Director, Bushnell Park Foundation, 203-232-8321

(Spring 1997)