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Compromise Allows Pickup Games At Hartford's Bushnell Park


October 04, 2012

HARTFORD The pickup games are back at Bushnell Park this week after city officials agreed to a compromise with Ultimate Frisbee and soccer players who were recently kicked off the turf.

The groups have filed city permits to use the park regularly for sports, said Jared Kupiec, Mayor Pedro Segarra's chief of staff.

The players mostly office workers who enjoy the exercise on their lunch breaks or Saturday mornings must also follow a few rules to address concerns from the city's public works department that their cleats were damaging the sod.

Cleats are no longer allowed, Kupiec said, although indoor soccer shoes can be used. They also cannot play after a heavy rain and must rotate their games between the east and west sides of the park. In addition, any portable goals or cones the groups use cannot damage the grass.

City officials plan to install "play at your own risk" signs at entrances to Bushnell Park and have drafted a waiver form that clears the city from liability if a person is injured while playing. However, Kupiec said, "the mayor has been clear he doesn't want that as a sticking point. That's still being sorted out."

As a light rain fell early Thursday afternoon, six people played a friendly round of Ultimate Frisbee four of them barefoot on the lush grass on the park's west side near the band shell and behind the state Capitol. Some people also played Monday, but on the park's east side near the pump house, an area that has been popular for pickup games.

"I think the mayor was definitely put in a bad position and he wanted to make it work out for everybody," said Joe Tota, 50, a Barkhamsted resident who works downtown for United Technologies Corp.

Criticism was lobbed at the city after reports last month that public works employees and police officers had ordered soccer and Ultimate Frisbee players to take their casual matches elsewhere. Public Works Director Kevin Burnham had said Bushnell Park was intended for "passive" use and not sports.

"We do have numerous athletic fields throughout the park system, and that's where games should be played," Burnham said.

Segarra later asserted that he did not want to "overregulate" the park but suggested that the groups would need to apply for city permits.

Tota began playing Ultimate Frisbee at Bushnell Park several years ago, back when it was only a few colleagues taking part in an informal "Wellness Wednesday," he said. Its popularity grew as more spectators stopped to watch, such as state employees on their lunch hour and even high school students on field trips.

"People would walk up and say, 'Can we play?'" Tota recounted. Now dozens are signed up on an online listserv; a game is played if enough people show up.

"We're very happy" with the city's compromise, Tota said Thursday after putting his shoes back on, adding that "it's kind of ridiculous that we had to do this in the first place."

"It's not the mayor or the city trying to be difficult," Kupiec said. "It's recognizing that our parks have been neglected and we have to pay attention to them... For the mayor, this has been a major priority."

Segarra budgeted $4.75 million last fiscal year and $5.55 million for the current year toward recreation and parks improvements, including $1.7 million to improve the cricket fields at Keney Park by late 2013, Kupiec said.

"Anyone who knows this mayor knows he's always willing to compromise," Kupiec said. "We have major parks in practically every neighborhood in the city of Hartford... We have an obligation to the residents to get them in pristine condition."

Until last month, Dan Cabral used to play Saturday morning soccer with his brother and friends at Bushnell Park, a tradition that lasted two years. On Tuesday, Cabral met with Kupiec, Burnham and Superintendent of Recreation Troy Stewart to discuss the agreement.

"We are only using the field one day a week," said Cabral, 24, an employee at Saint Francis Hospital and Medical Center who lives in East Hartford, "but at the end of the day, the rules, we're obviously going to follow them."

Cabral's group has played at Colt Park the past few Saturdays. But when the guys return to Bushnell Park, it's possible they'll have a new player.

Toward the end of Tuesday's meeting, Cabral said, Segarra stopped by and offered to kick around the soccer ball with him and his friends.

"I said, 'Sure, come on down. Just make sure not to wear cleats.'"

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.
| Last update: September 25, 2012 |
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