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Taste Of Hartford Off The Menu

March 25, 2005
By JEFFREY B. COHEN, Courant Staff Writer

The Greater Hartford Arts Council has decided to cancel the Taste of Hartford for 2005, the first step in a citywide effort to reinvent outdoor programming at Constitution Plaza, officials said Thursday.

"It was time for us to make a change, all of us," said Kenneth R. Kahn, the council's executive director. The council licenses the name "Taste of Hartford" to a private event manager and has decided not to renew the contract. "This isn't an unhappy thing. It's a tremendous relief to be able to turn the page."

The next page of Hartford development should inspire new thought about downtown artistic and cultural events, he said. "We really have a moment here with something important - new energy, new people, new things, new buildings, new venues," Kahn said. "So the context has changed and the opportunities have changed. And we see this as an opportunity."

But Dan Karp sees it as a disappointment.

"I think it's very unfortunate that it's being canceled," said Karp, the president of Daniels Production Inc. of West Hartford, the event manager who has run Taste of Hartford for at least the past decade. "It's a Hartford tradition, it's very well-liked and popular by all of the people who attend it, and it's been a highlight as far as Hartford events go."

"The public obviously likes it," he said.

Though it did draw thousands of people downtown, the event no longer meshed with what downtown backers want Constitution Plaza to be, they said.

The arts council had become dissatisfied with the quality of the event, from the food to the entertainment to the commercialism.

"It was, for the most part, very ordinary," Kahn said. "It became a food vending activity. It no longer was a major activity for the restaurants, and it really had nothing indigenous."

In addition, property owners were repeatedly upset at how vendors disposed of their garbage, he said.

"And the other thing is, the style of it really failed," Kahn said, saying that it was growing away from the mission that the arts council had set for it. "It had so much criticism from people who had reminisced about the old `Taste.'"

Now that the event is gone, the time has come to rethink the plaza's future, Kahn said.

At a meeting Tuesday in the board room at The Phoenix Companies Inc., Kahn and Joseph R. Marfuggi, president of Riverfront Recapture, spoke to a group of gathered "stakeholders" - representatives from Phoenix, St. Paul Travelers, the city, state, the MetroHartford Alliance, the Connecticut Center for Science and Exploration, the convention center, and more.

Marfuggi told the others that they have an opportunity to rethink how Constitution Plaza and its surrounding areas, are used. Soon, there will be one continuous space - from the river, to Constitution Plaza, to Adriaen's Landing, he told them.

"It's going to look like one continuous space to visitors, but it's a blend of public property and private property," Marfuggi said. "What we're trying to do is build a consensus as to, `What do the stakeholders want to see in their neighborhood?'"

By the meeting's end, the group set up a steering committee with the hope of reintroducing programming by the summer of 2006, Marfuggi said. The committee's job is simple: to determine the type and frequency of programming and to figure out how to best coordinate and pay for it, Marfuggi said.

"All of a sudden we're looking at a big new influx of people, into an area that's been relatively quiet in terms of pedestrian traffic," he said, referring to the expectation of visitors to Adriaen's Landing and to the city. "That's going to change in a huge way and we want to be ready for it."

The original idea came to Marfuggi from the plaza's owners, Capital Properties, he said. Now, it's up to this new steering committee to take the idea and develop it, Kahn said.

"We want to re-conceptualize the whole way we use it," Kahn said of Constitution Plaza. "We needed a virtual blank slate. To clear the decks, literally, and say, `Where do we go?'"

As for the Taste of Hartford, it may go elsewhere. Karp said he is considering bringing a similar event with a similar name to East Hartford, although plans are not finalized "because the Taste of Hartford in its current form works very well."

But even though it may work well, it may not fit the new downtown mold, Kahn and others said.

Beth Shluger started the Taste of Hartford event in 1983 with the intent of making it a place for local restaurants to showcase themselves.

"It was never sold to the restaurants as a quick way to make a lot of money," she said. She remembers when there was a wine garden and when one vendor served chilled asparagus with orange hollandaise. Quality food, she said.

"But it changed through the years from what its original intent was," Shluger said. "As its founder, I would be very pleased if it took a hiatus and was recreated as something entirely different."

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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