First-Year Stumbles Left Behind: Almost 50,000 Skaters Visited Outdoor Rink In Bushnell Park
By JENNA CARLESSO
February 19, 2012
HARTFORD —— In its second year at Bushnell Park, the city's Winterfest celebration has shaken off the criticism from last year over its holiday light display and found a steady demand from skaters at its free outdoor ice rink.
Organizers said comments from visitors helped shape this year's festivities, including the return of the popular twinkle lights that the event — formerly known as the Festival of Light — featured at its old location at Constitution Plaza.
The suggestions included opening the skating rink when the festival started.
Last winter, organizers said they wanted to try something new by moving the festival, which had experienced waning interest from corporate sponsors, to Bushnell Park. They replaced the traditional twinkling lights with colored spotlights and searchlights. While the initial light show left some people disappointed, the festival began to gain traction two weeks later when a free skating rink opened.
This year, organizers said, the focus was less on the lights and more on the rink, which was twice the size as last year's and has stayed open more than a month longer.
"Last year we focused on the lighting, and we realized that skating is what it's all about," said Jane Penfield, director of corporate and foundation relations at the Greater Hartford Arts Council and project director for Winterfest.
"We listened to what the public wanted and focused on the skating, which has been so well-received. As you go about this, you learn and you try to make it better and better."
Nearly 50,000 skaters have visited the rink since it opened Nov. 25, Penfield said. Organizers are also close to their fundraising goal, having brought in $358,000 through a combination of corporate and individual donors and city money. The overall budget is about $400,000, Penfield said.
The city contributed about $50,000, individual donors gave about $1,700, and the rest was donated by corporate sponsors that include Northeast Utilities, the Hartford Foundation for Public Giving, Travelers, Prudential and United Technologies, Penfield said. She added that organizers expect to meet their fundraising goal.
The festival ends Monday. In addition to the money, about 600 pairs of skates and hundreds of gloves, mittens and hats were donated for guests to use.
David Fay, president and chief executive officer of The Bushnell, said one of the best things about the festival was looking out his office window at the illuminated park.
"The city this year took down the signs that say 'Park Closed At Dusk,'" said Fay, who is also vice president of the city's iQuilt board, which helped raise money for the festival. "During a time of year when it gets dark early, it was wonderful to see the park lit at night."
Fay said the skating rink brought together city and suburban families and helped bring visitors downtown.
"You'd see kids from the suburbs with their $350 ice skates out there alongside city kids who don't know how to ice skate," he said. "It was a wonderful experience to see that kind of melting pot. I can't think of another place you could do something like this and have that kind of mix."
Mayor Pedro Segarra said he was pleased with the turnout, and hopes to continue building on the event.
Next year, he said, he hopes to include other winter sports, like skiing and snowboarding, and a ramp for sledding. Segarra said eventually he'd like to see Winterfest expand to include the city's other parks, with activities at each location.
"The reaction this year was incredible," he said. "I think it went more smoothly and it's worthy of further consideration and expansion. We should be able to use our parks year-round. I want more [city] families to come out and more visitors to come in."
Other goals include expanding the rink another 15 to 20 feet and attracting more vendors to sell food, beverages and other goods in the park, organizers said.
Bob Crawford, the event director, said the rink had a "homey feel" this year, with lower boards for people to hold onto, more seating alongside it and brighter ambient light surrounding it.
"We had a lot more time to design it this year," he said. "Last year it was a rush to get it done. The whole scene is much nicer, and you get an amphitheater effect when you walk by. A lot of people have stopped to see it."
Monday is the final day for free skating. The rink will be open from 11 a.m. to 9 p.m.
Reprinted with permission of the Hartford Courant.
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