Riverfest Canceled After Hartford, East Hartford Pull Funding

With less than two weeks to go, Riverfest canceled; Hartford, East Hartford pull funding

HARTFORD — Riverfest, the annual summer music and fireworks celebration in Hartford and East Hartford, was canceled by Riverfront Recapture on Monday after losing municipal funding.

The abrupt cancellation comes less than two weeks before the July 9 event. A food truck festival planned for that week will go on.

In a joint letter to Riverfront Recapture President and CEO Michael Zaleski on Monday, Hartford Mayor Luke Bronin and East Hartford Mayor Marcia Leclerc said: "Following up on our recent conversations, we are writing to let you know that, with regret, our cities will be unable to bear the costs of staffing Riverfest. … We understand that our inability to bear these costs likely means that the event will be canceled."

The cities estimated their share of the costs, for police and fire protection, to be about $100,000. That, coupled with the loss of state police staffing — the state also pulled its contribution citing fiscal woes — dealt the festival a devastating blow.

Zaleski said the cost to cover state police presence is about $20,000. The $120,000 total loss is about half of Riverfest's budget, he said.

"It's disappointing," Zaleski said. "This is a difficult decision and not one we took lightly."

Zaleski said the short time frame between Monday and the festival makes it too difficult to raise private funds to save the event. Riverfest is covered in part by corporate donations.

"It's a big number. It's not like it's an $8,000 or $10,000 GoFundMe effort to make fireworks happen," Zaleski said. "This is, over the course of three agencies, $120,000. It's not … money that could be raised in a short amount of time."

Riverfront Recapture, which organizes the event, is working with vendors to deal with any down payments already made, he said.

The festival has been touted as the state's largest Independence Day celebration. This would have been its 36th year.

In Hartford, Bronin recently laid off 40 city employees, cut departmental staffing and ended most subsidies for parades and other special events amid what he has called an economic crisis. Hartford faces a $48.5 million deficit in the coming fiscal year that will be offset in part with the cuts and with concessions that Bronin is counting on from city unions.

"We believe that Riverfest is a valuable regional event and we are hopeful that, in future years, we will be able to raise sufficient support from the region and from private sources to continue an important tradition," Bronin and Leclerc wrote in the letter to Zaleski.

Leclerc, whose town also faces budget challenges, said in an interview: "It just didn't seem right to be cutting people's jobs to put on this regional event."

People were dismayed by the news Monday.

"I've been going to [Riverfest] since I was little," Paul Nelson of Hartford said. "It's disappointing."

"I do think that we need to bring Riverfest back, because we don't have many activities, especially cultural activities, in Greater Hartford," said Yvette Owens of Windsor. "When we let something like this go, then people are still looking for things like this. Instead of taking things away we should be adding more."

Despite the loss of festivities on July 9, which included a fireworks display and live bands, the Riverfront Food Truck Festival on Mortensen Riverfront Plaza will proceed on July 7, 8 and 9. Zaleski said Riverfront Recapture is working to bring some form of entertainment to the area on those days.

Courant staff writer Jenna Carlesso contributed to this story.

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