HARTFORD—Public reaction was tepid when the city's long-running Festival of Light holiday display moved from Constitution Plaza downtown to a more central location at Bushnell Park this winter.
Organizers cited declining corporate interest and donations, among other reasons, for making the shift, and some visitors described the new light show as less than perfect.
The park's free skating rink proved popular, drawing visitors from the city and the suburbs, and corporate donations have reached a new high. The festival brought in about $300,000 this season, a large increase from the $135,000 raised in 2009. Organizers attributed the rise to the change of venue and its new features.
"I think people saw the potential that it not only provided a venue for folks to engage in activities, but also provided economic components, like the surrounding restaurants and entertainment venues," Mayor Pedro Segarra said. "Now that this year was successful, we hope to get more corporate sponsors next year and create a bigger event."
The festival's opening ceremony had been held at Constitution Plaza since it began in 1963. Some people who attended the event at its new Bushnell Park location on Nov. 26 left feeling disappointed by what they described as an underwhelming light show. The traditional twinkling lights that illuminated Constitution Plaza were absent, replaced by colored spotlights and searchlights.
But the ice rink - which offered free skating and skate rentals - opened two weeks later, and toward the end of the festival, averaged 1,000 skaters a day, according to organizers. They also reported large crowds visiting the park to take in the lights and participate in other activities, like riding the carousel, visiting Santa and watching entertainment.
"Once everything was up and running and people could see the whole picture, I think they were very pleased," said Rie Poirier-Campbell, chief operating officer of the Greater Hartford Arts Council, which organized the event. "It was very well received this year."
Festival sponsors echoed that sentiment.
"I think it was a tremendous idea to move it to Bushnell to bring people into the park," said Mitch Gross, a spokesman for Connecticut Light & Power, one of the festival's top sponsors. "With the rink and the carousel and everything else, there's lots of things to do that bring people into the city. That's why events like this are held."
It was the first year LAZ Parking appeared on the festival's list of sponsors. The company donated $5,000 in in-kind services by providing free skates.
"We were happy to be able to help give so many families the opportunity to put on skates for the first time," said Alan Lazowski, chief executive officer of LAZ. "Because of that, we felt the rink was an overwhelming success for the city."
Mike Zaleski, head of the Hartford Downtown Business Improvement District, which donated $2,000 as well as in-kind services, said he was happy with the festival's overall presentation.
"While much different than the white lights that were prominent at Constitution Plaza, I thought [the new installations] brought an interesting and dynamic look that people hadn't seen before," he said.
Organizers are now beginning to think about what next season's festival might look like.
Segarra said he envisions a larger rink that would stay open longer and include more activities, like snowboarding lessons. To that end, he said, he's hoping for more corporate donations.
The mayor said he'll also try to gauge public reaction so the next festival doesn't disappoint.
"We have an opportunity to study and learn and put something out next year that hopefully meets everyone's expectations," he said.
Jane Penfield, the festival's operations director, said organizers are considering opening the rink at the start of the festival - the day after Thanksgiving - instead of two weeks later.
"It would be nice to have the skating up and running from the beginning," she said. "With a whole year now to look forward and plan, we'll be in a better position to think these things through."