May 30, 2006
By STEVEN GOODE, Courant Staff Writer
Craig Mergins has a vivid recollection of what the Connecticut River was like when he first came to work for Riverfront Recapture nearly 20 years ago.
"It was considered the largest natural sewer system in the country," he said.
But a lot has changed since that day in 1988, and Mergins - "Mr. River," as he is known - has been at the middle of it, out on the water, in the parks on both the Hartford and East Hartford sides and at the boathouse.
With efforts underway to improve water quality, Mergins, a Chicago native with a background in commercial recreation, was given the job of getting people onto and around the river.
He visited Boston and Burlington, Vt., to evaluate sailing and boating programs that could help achieve the organization's goals, and upon returning, Mergins told Riverfront Recapture President and CEO Joe Marfuggi that he felt one of the best ways to get people back to the river was to introduce something different.
Mergins did, offering a bare-bones community rowing program that featured four rented single shells that were brought into 61-acre Riverside Park, north of Hartford, on a trailer two days a week.
At the time, the park's only other features were a softball field, a gazebo and a boat launch, but the rowing program was an instant draw and quickly developed a waiting list. That program, which started with about 50 participants in 1988, is expected to serve as many as 500 this year as Riverfront Recapture prepares to celebrate its 25th birthday Friday.
And there has been more. Mergins, director of programs and operations for the organization, has added ropes courses, professional fishing tournaments, festivals, boat-building and other programs largely tailored to Harford and East Hartford youngsters. The organization had more than 4,300 youths participating in programs in 2005.
The organization also forms partnerships with organizations already working with young people, including boys and girls clubs, and police athletic and activity leagues, and provides summer programming.
The goal is to get kids out of their neighborhoods and introduce them to safe activities they might never have been exposed to.
"Our target is the city and neighborhoods, especially where kids don't have as many opportunities," Marfuggi said. "We want to serve kids with a greater need."
Mergins said he is proud of the improvements made to the park system and progress made in drawing people back to the river during his time with Riverfront Recapture. But he said his commitment to youth programming is what keeps him going.
"Working with kids is a real important piece," he said. "We've got to get the young ones that are on the fence involved, whether it's the ropes challenge course, fishing or rowing," he said. "We've got to keep figuring out ways to fill the void."
Mergins recalled working with a youngster in a fishing rod-building program in the Sheldon-Charter Oak public housing complex in Hartford a few years ago. Unlike others in the program, the boy incorporated many different colors of thread as he decorated his rod.
When Mergins asked him why, the boy answered that the each color represented a member of his family and he wanted them to be with him when he fished.
"That's pretty meaningful and powerful. For him it was more than just building a rod," he said. "Your eyes well up with tears. That's what keeps you going."
And then there's George Colon, whom Mergins first met when he caught the 10-year-old Bellevue Square resident throwing rocks at light poles and "keying" cars - scraping them with the end of a key - in Riverside Park.
Instead of calling the police, Mergins befriended Colon and invited him to go fishing. The two began a friendship that lasted through Colon's graduation from Hartford Public High School in 2000 and continues today.
"He made a path for me and it started with the riverfront," said Colon, 25. "He was such an important part of my life."
To show his gratitude, Colon helps out with festivals and other events and lends a hand when Mergins asks. Colon said he has come to appreciate the effort Mergins and his small group of colleagues put into running the programs.
"They have an impact on city youth. They don't give up. They're always out their telling the kids they have option," Colon said.
Riverfront Recapture is in the middle of a program to complete the linear park system along the river. The organization unveiled Riverfront Plaza in 1999, and built the $3.2 million boathouse, where $1.2 million in site improvements are nearly complete.
A free anniversary concert is scheduled for Friday. It will begin at Riverfront Plaza at 5 p.m. and will feature a performance by the Four Tops at 8 p.m.
"Image: riverfront-recapture.jpg Image desc: Riverfront Recapture is preparing to celebrate its 25th anniversary June 2 with a celebration at Riverfront Plaza featuring the Four Tops. The organization, which is working on site improvements at the Riverside Park boathouse and along the linear trail system, offers programs on and near the Connecticut River for thousands of city youths annually."
Reprinted with permission of the Hartford Courant.
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