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Get Pep Ideas Off The Mat

December 13, 2006
Column By STAN SIMPSON, Courant Staff Writer

Months before Willie Pep died, his old friend Angelo Fuggetta suggested an idea that we were obliged to pass along:

Why not name part of the Front Street project, a still undeveloped cornerstone of the downtown Hartford convention center, for a colorful character who was reared in the city, frequented Front Street as a kid and in the 1940s became one of the greatest prize fighters ever.

It was a knockout of an idea. Apparently Mayor Eddie Perez thinks so too.

He has sent a letter to Bill McCue, chairman of the Capital City Economic Development Authority, and developer Brad Nitkin to consider designing a small park in the Front Street project in honor of Pep, who died last month at 84.

"Pep was a boxing icon," Perez wrote. "He has been an inspiration to Hartford residents for decades and is very much a part of the history of the city."

All the elements are in place to expand, enhance and expedite a meaningful memorial for Pep. Front Street has been trying to find a new marketable identity. ESPN has long committed to some sort of role at the convention center site, but has yet to deliver. The 2-year-old Connecticut Boxing Hall of Fame is looking for a home to showcase the state's rich boxing history - seven world champions from the 1920s to the 1980s; including featherweight Louis "Kid" Kaplan in the 1920s, "Slapsie"' Maxie Rosenbloom in the 1930s; Pep in the 1940s; and Marlon Starling in the late 1980s.

Pep Park would be an attraction to a convention city always looking for fresh marketing ammo to persuade those who see Hartford as little more than a way station between Boston and New York. The mayor's letter should set in motion a number of things making Pep's legacy an attraction.

First, a call to ESPN. The worldwide leader in sports entertainment has recently renewed talks with developer Nitkin about what kind of presence the network can have at the convention center, according to ESPN spokesman Mike Soltys.

"We remain committed to doing something with the Front Street development," Soltys said Tuesday. "The focus all along has been on some sort of interactive experience; with a food and dining element as well; and it needs to be localized."

A Pep proposal has not been part of those conversations - not yet. But it certainly could meet the criteria.

So, here goes, Dear ESPN: If you're not sold on "Pep Park" maybe you can tweak Perez's proposal and instead erect a statute of Pep on the outdoor deck abutting the convention center. Then, ESPN could build an interactive museum for the Connecticut Boxing Hall of Fame in the convention center, replete with computer and 3-D games to educate folks about the state's boxing notables such as Pep, Kaplan, Starling, Johnny Duke and others. It wouldn't have to be an enormous ESPN Zone venture like ones in New York and Chicago, but it could be a distinct attraction that also offers dining.

"Certainly if ESPN were involved it would tie up the package nicely," said Larry Perosino, spokesman for House Speaker James Amann, another supporter of a Pep recognition. Perosino is also on the state boxing commission. "We were told that CCEDA and Nitkin were open to some sort of designation on Pep."

McCue said he, too, would listen to Pep plans for the Front Street project but suggested that other ideas also would be solicited. "Let's not worry about how long it takes but make sure we get it right," he said.

In the meantime, we'll keep punching on this. Time for another round of talks and more meaningful dialogue.

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.
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