Riverfront Recapture Celebrates Joe Marfuggi's 25 Years
May 20, 2011
A cleanup in Riverside Park in Hartford isn't quite the exercise it used to be.
These days it might mean raking leaves, touching up the boathouse with paint or grabbing a candy wrapper.
But back when Joe Marfuggi first became president and CEO of Riverfront Recapture, cleaning up Riverside Park might include removing cars, washing machines and refrigerators dumped near the Connecticut River.
"We would measure our progress in tonnage," Marfuggi said.
Marfuggi, who is celebrating his 25th year with the organization, reflected this week on some of its accomplishments over its 30 years of existence and the difficulties involved in reclaiming access to the river in Hartford and East Hartford.
"There were lots of plans, ideas and energy," said Marfuggi, 69, "but it was really hard. It was so far out of people's day-to-day experiences it was difficult to get people to think this could happen."
By "this," Marfuggi was referring to the three decade-long transformation of the riverfront from an inaccessible, littered and overgrown area blocked by Interstate 91 and the walls of flood dikes to a brand-new downtown plaza and park system that attracted 960,000 visitors last year.
Marfuggi said the key to the progress of Riverfront Recapture and the park system it created was a focus on incremental change. It meant delivering on promises, even something as simple as putting a dock at Charter Oak Landing in Hartford.
"That gave people an opportunity to get out on the water," he said. "Once people got out there and saw the city right on the river, people's attitudes started to change."
Not all the organization's accomplishments have been easily achieved. For instance, the privately funded, $3.6 million boathouse was built in a flood plain and designed to withstand the annual spring floods. It took a decade of planning and working with the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers to get the necessary permits to build it. It opened in 2002 and has been key to the growth of Riverfront Recapture's community rowing program.
Other big splashes along the way have included the 1996 opening of an amphitheater in East Hartford and completion of an extension of the riverwalk to link Great River Park on the east side of the river with Charter Oak Landing on the south side.
In 1998, a partnership agreement was reached between the Metropolitan District Commission and the cities of Hartford and East Hartford, allowing the MDC to maintain and police the park system.
Oz Griebel, chairman of Riverfront Recapture's board of directors at the time, said the creation and success of the MDC partnership will go down as a major part of Marfuggi's "enduring legacy."
"This could not and cannot be done without that partnership," he said.
Riverfront Plaza, the canopied downtown venue that hosts festivals and summer concerts, opened in 1999, and in 2001 a pedestrian bridge that spanned Columbus Boulevard and connected Constitution Plaza to the riverfront was completed.
Griebel said Marfuggi has been instrumental in raising the tens of millions in private and public dollars needed to keep Riverfront Recapture moving forward and that he has consistently promoted the recreational and economic value of the river and park system.
"This is a guy who is selfless. He is about the larger community good," Griebel said.
The next big project for Marfuggi and Riverfront is working toward completion of Riverwalk south from the Founder's Bridge to Charter Oak Landing. When finished, it will complete a three-mile loop that connects East Hartford and Hartford.
But there are, once again, years of work to be done as the organization is hoping to get the needed permit approval to move the dike at the Park River back and create an open, gated system that can be closed to prevent flooding. The cost of the project is estimated at $27 million, and Riverfront has raised "a couple million" so far, according to Marfuggi, who said the push for fundraising will come once the design is done and permits received.
Marfuggi, who has had some health setbacks in recent years, said he hopes to still be working with the organization when that project is completed.
"You work on projects, you want to see them through," said Marfuggi.
Chris Cloud, a board member since about 2002, said board members also want Marfuggi to see the project to completion.
"We love Joe," Cloud said.
Riverfront Recapture will be celebrating Marfuggi's 25th anniversary and the success of Riverfront Recapture on Saturday. The Big Mo' Anniversary Edition will be held at One State Street in Hartford. For information go to http://www.riverfront.org.
Reprinted with permission of the Hartford Courant.
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