Budget cuts to Riverfront Recapture are a devastating blow

This editorial by President & CEO Michael Zaleski appeared in the Hartford Courant on January 16, 2020.

This is not a typical January for Riverfront Recapture. Usually, we are finalizing plans for another year of exciting events, programs and activities along the riverfront and planning for springtime maintenance.

Instead of making big plans, we’re looking at making big cuts. A recent vote by the MDC’s Board of Commissioners to cut their funding has delivered a devastating blow.

Riverfront Recapture is the non-profit organization founded in 1981 to reconnect the capitol region with the Connecticut River. We manage four public parks in Hartford and East Hartford, produce public events and work to enhance access to the river. In 2019, more than 835,000 people spent time in our parks.

A unique public-private partnership makes this all possible. One-third of our funding comes from private sponsorships and donations. Another third comes from earned income — such as revenue from our rowing, adventure and outdoors programs.

The last third comes from the MDC, Greater Hartford’s water company.

In 1998, community leaders and state legislators adopted a progressive regional funding source to support our relatively new regional parks system. A modest assessment on water customers helps fund the maintenance and operation of the area’s riverfront parks. And it’s worked well. Our parks would not be what they are today without the MDC’s investment. For about $9 per year for the average residential water customer, the region has been able to enjoy a system of parks that provides access to the Connecticut River.

In December 2018, facing their own budget issues, the MDC Board of Commissioners passed a resolution that outlined a five-year plan to reduce funding for Riverfront Recapture. Their resolution sought to bring their support down to $600,000 by 2024. While not ideal, the timeline would have given us the opportunity to find an alternate regional funding source.

But instead, last month, the MDC cut $650,000 from our funding; $487,500 more than expected, two weeks before the start of our fiscal year and four years ahead of schedule.

Safe, clean parks are our top priority. Without MDC funding to maintain our parks, the funding we raise for other purposes will have to go towards park maintenance. That puts at risk a whole host of free, family public events and programs. We may not be able to produce popular events like the Riverfront Food Truck Festival, Riverfront Dragon Boat & Asian Festival, Hartbeat Music Festival or Taste of the Caribbean and Jerk Festival.

Numerous other festivals, concerts and community events that bring people from throughout the region to the river may not happen. We may not be able to operate our high school rowing program, which brings together student-athletes from across the region and sends them to colleges across the country. Access to our parks will also be limited by scaling back or shuttering three of the most popular boat launches in the Hartford area. Our parks, prone to seasonal flooding, will suffer from a lack of timely maintenance.

But the potential impact goes far beyond us. This $650,000 cut will affect the region, from residents to visitors, from small business owners to organizations trying to attract young talent to the area, from non-profits to large corporations. Every serious economic development plan for the Hartford region in the last 20 years has focused on the importance of the river. We are working on multiple projects that will connect towns along the Connecticut River and tie our region together. Projects like these have proven wildly successful in cities like Philadelphia, New York and Providence. This is all at risk.

My predecessor, Joe Marfuggi, who led Riverfront Recapture for 28 years, was fond of saying, “The Connecticut River is not something that divides our communities, it is the seam that stitches us together.” He was right. Showcasing the river and the parks on its banks should be a priority for our region and all of its stakeholders. We must figure out a way to properly invest in an organization like Riverfront Recapture that enhances quality of life and makes the Hartford region a place where people want to live.

Right now, we need to find the funding to keep our programming in place and our parks accessible to the public. Ultimately, we need a thoughtful, regional funding approach that will allow us to connect people to the river for years to come.

It’s time to act to create a sustainable regional plan that recognizes that our greatest natural resource, the Connecticut River, is key to the continued revitalization of the region.

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