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Willie Pep Idea Gains Traction

March 18, 2006
Column By Stan Simpson

OK, maybe it's premature to call the effort to recast Front Street as "Willie Pep Boulevard" a groundswell. But the idea of honoring the Connecticut original and legendary boxing champion at Adriaen's Landing is getting momentum.

From Bristol to Florida, the e-mails, letters and phone calls of support keep coming in about an idea I passed along last week from 86-year-old Hartford native Angelo Fuggetta. He suggested naming the retail and entertainment complex planned for downtown in recognition of his colorful, gifted and ailing pal. Pep, a two-time featherweight world champ in the 1940s and 1950s, is considered one of the greatest prizefighters ever.And he grew up on the original Front Street.

More significantly, House Speaker James Amann said Friday he plans to include the proposal for a name change - it's a state-funded project - as part of a major transportation bill expected this session. So we've got one more reason to keep our eye on what's shaping up to be a big year for transportation at the Capitol.

"The reason is simple," Amann said. "The guy is not only a Hartford legend, but a legend in the boxing world. It would be a great honor for him and something Hartford should do for the guy. He's one of the people that made Hartford and made our state a great state."

If Pep Boulevard can get done without a bill buster or filibuster, the potential of creating a unique destination downtown is unlimited.

Link Pep Boulevard with ESPN's support to play an undefined role downtown, then connect that to the new Connecticut Boxing Hall of Fame's search for a venue to showcase the state's underplayed boxing history, and you've got something to market. Seven world champions have called Connecticut home.

"It would be great branding for Hartford," said Christian J. Renstrom, a boxing buff who is vice president and general manager of Marketing Resource Consultants, publishers of Hartford Magazine.

"This guy is universally recognized as one of the five or 10 greatest ever in the history of his sport. What a terrific attraction for people out of the area to see some sort of memorial for this gentleman. He's arguably the greatest sports franchise we've ever had. Willie Pep defined greatness. People need to know that buses upon buses of Hartfordites would drive down to Madison Square Garden and Yankee Stadium when he fought."

Like a lot of hometowns, Hartford has a way of not always treasuring its sons and daughters. So when outsiders turn up their nose at the city, we can forget to remind them that it has been home to Mark Twain and Katharine Hepburn and Willie Pep and a guy named Jackie McLean, recognized as the greatest living alto saxophone player in the world.

Putting Pep's name on Front Street is like putting the peppers on a sausage grinder. It'd spice up an area that was once a busy Italian enclave, while reclaiming its ethnic roots.

New city council president John Bazzano, a South Hartford guy who remembers watching the old fighters with his late dad, says he also is supportive of the idea. So is Michael Kintner, the executive director of the Hartford Image Project, who spends much of his work life trying to cast Hartford in the most flattering light.

Willie Pep Boulevard does just that.

And it could be leveraged in all sorts of productive ways for a city getting off the ropes.

Reprinted with permission of the Hartford Courant. To view other stories on this topic, search the Hartford Courant Archives at http://www.courant.com/archives.
| Last update: September 25, 2012 |
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