Hartford’s annual free skating rink will be back this winter with a few changes due to the pandemic, as long as organizers can make up yet another budget shortfall.
The iQuilt Partnership, which organizes Winterfest, announced Monday it’s looking for another $135,000 in donations to hold the monthlong event, which has brought free skating, rentals and lessons to Bushnell Park for the past 10 years.
The financial strain of the COVID-19 crisis has hurt some of iQuilt’s sponsors and donors, forcing the downtown organization to hold its third emergency campaign in five years for Winterfest.
The festival also struggled to raise enough funds in 2016 and 2017, the first two years after it lost its primary source of financial support from the city. Hartford used to give $280,000 to $300,000 to the annual event, but cut most of its special events budget as a result of its own financial crisis.
Two years in a row, private corporations, nonprofits and individuals answered iQuilt’s pleas for last-minute funding. Donations flowed more freely the last two years, particularly in 2019, which marked the event’s 10th anniversary.
This year, iQuilt executive director Jackie Mandyck said the group must make do without one of its former presenting sponsors, Hartford-based United Bank, which was bought in July 2019 by People’s United Bank. The event also lost the sponsorship of Launc[h], a jobs- and startup-creation initiative previously called Innovation Places Hartford-East Hartford, Mandyck said.
Many corporations and foundations have also donated a lot of money this year to COVID-19 relief and efforts to address racial disparities, she said. For others, she added, “the funds just aren’t there.”
But since putting out this year’s call for help, iQuilt has heard from several companies that may contribute to Winterfest’s $245,000 budget.
If it comes together, the festival will run from Nov. 27 to Jan. 2 — shorter than usual — and lack some of its signature activities due to social distancing and safety requirements.
Winterfest will limit how many people can skate at one time and disinfect surfaces between groups. The skates themselves have always been disinfected between use, and that will continue, Mandyck said.
The rink will not sell concessions, as masks will be required at all times within the enclosed area of the festival. There won’t be a games room or Santa’s workshop, either, she said.
“I think it’s a little hard to tell a 2- or 3-year-old that you can’t hug Santa,” Mandyck said. “So we’re going to try to be a little more creative. We might have Santa come in virtually to answer questions a day or two.”
Organizers have sought advice from other skating rinks in New England and locals who have held outdoor events in Hartford. Mandyck is hopeful some food vendors will set up along Elm Street, and her team is looking into adding other safe activities, like art, music and performances.
“We really think we can do this very well within CDC guidelines, within the Department of Health,” Mandyck said. “We think we can do this in a very safe manner, especially since it’s outside. It’s so important to get people outside and moving and grooving, so we think this is important for this winter especially."
“I think people are gonna need it this year,” she added.
Rebecca Lurye can be reached at email@example.com.
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