A significant donation to the Fernridge Park project came with naming rights, and Michael Schur, co-creator of “Parks & Rec” and a West Hartford native, chose to name it after the main character on the popular show.
By Ronni Newton
West Hartford’s Fernridge Park has a special place in the heart of Michael Schur, and anyone who has ever watched the hit TV show he co-created, Parks and Recreation, knows that lead character, Pawnee, Indiana’s Deputy Parks and Recreation Department Director Leslie Knope (played by Amy Poehler), will do anything to support parks.
When Schur learned about the fundraising efforts for a promenade at Fernridge Park – one of the final phases of an ongoing project to improve the park – he readily agreed to make a donation, at a level that came with naming rights.
“One of the hooks was, if you donated at least $10,000, you could name the promenade,” Helen Rubino-Turco, director of West Hartford’s Leisure and Social Services Department, told We-Ha.com.
“He said, ‘Yes, I’ll give you $10,000, but only if you name the promenade after Leslie Knope,'” said Rubino-Turco. “We thought it was hilarious, and we said sure,” she said.
The Leslie Knope Promenade, which was dedicated during a small ceremony on Saturday, Sept. 12, also includes a plaque with a quote attributable to Knope: “Let’s embark on a new journey, together, and see where it takes us.”
Schur, who graduated from Hall High School in 1993 and Harvard in 1997, co-created Parks and Recreation with Greg Daniels. The hit show ran for seven seasons on NBC, from 2009-2015, ending not because it was canceled but because the creators, and Poehler, the producer, decided it was time to end it.
Some of Schur’s other Hollywood credits included writing for Saturday Night Live, writer and producer for The Office, and more recently creator of Brooklyn Ninety-Nine and The Good Place.
“Michael Schur grew up in West Hartford, and he used to work for Leisure Services, and his family home backed up to Fernridge Park,” said Rubino-Turco. His family lived on Walden Street, and spent his summers in Fernridge Park.
Esther Spigel, one of the original founders of Friends of Fernridge Park, told We-Ha.com that Schur has been involved with the organization since its inception. “He’s always been so supportive of it.”
Spigel said she invited Schur, who lives in California, but he was not able to attend. She does plan to send him photos of Saturday night’s dedication.
COVID-19 not only put a damper on Schur’s ability to attend the event, but also impacted the original plans for the celebration.
“We were going to have a waffle truck,” Spigel said – a nod to Leslie Knope’s favorite food. And they were thinking about having a miniature horse at the event, a nod to the famed Li’l Sebastian, a notable character on Parks and Rec.
Spigel said she couldn’t imagine a better name for the promenade – noting that it’s a bit different from what’s happening in Danbury, where the town was the butt of a joke by comedian John Oliver and in response Mayor Mark Boughton is considering naming the sewage treatment plant after him (with Oliver’s endorsement).
Dave Krum, a member of the board of Friends of Fernridge Park, worked for West Hartford’s Leisure Services Department back when it was called the Parks and Recreation Department. He grew up spending time in the park and was eventually the park supervisor. He served as emcee of Saturday night’s dedication ceremony.
“This park creates a lot of friendships,” Krum said.
Mayor Shari Cantor also attended the dedication. “It really is a fun way to dedicate a very special project,” she said. “We are so excited and moved by your passion,” she said to Spigel and the rest of the Friends of Fernridge organization.
Cantor, a West Hartford native, has been coming to Fernridge Park her whole life, and so have her sons.
“Park and Rec really is a funny, funny show. I did relate to Leslie a little bit,” Cantor said. She read aloud one of her favorite quotes from the show, a message that Leslie Knope sent to herself that Cantor said has really resonated throughout the pandemic and recent power outage: “Hey Leslie, it’s Leslie. Hang in there. I love you. Bye.” Cantor said she reads it sometimes as a reminder.
Rubino-Turco said at the dedication that the Friends of Fernridge Park, which has donated more than $35,000 toward improvements to the park, is a great example of a public-private partnership and building stewardship.
“And they’re not done. There are more benches coming, more trees coming. We hope to finish or at least try and connect and make the circle whole. … These changes are made possible by the neighborhood,” Rubino-Turco said.
Friends of Fernridge Park has been engaged in activities to improve the neighborhood park, one of West Hartford’s five large parks, since the 501(c)(3) nonprofit was formed nearly a decade ago with the goal of supporting “the betterment and continued beauty of Fernridge Park.”
“Leslie Knope Promenade, wow. I can hardly get my head around it,” Town Manager Matt Hart said at Saturday’s dedication, thanking everyone for their contribution. He joked that his local government colleagues around the country are probably pretty envious, and said that many of the story lines on Parks and Recreation are only two or three steps removed from the truth.
“This park, our parks … they’re part of the heart and soul of our community,” Hart said. “We are so fortunate to live in a place like this, one of the premier suburbs not only in Connecticut but in the country.”
“Leslie Knope is a hyper competent and incredibly enthusiastic public servant who loves her job, her community, her friends, and waffles,” Spigel said at the dedication. “Or, she loves her waffles, her community, her friends, and her job. Or, you can take the combination any way you want because she did, but she always full of really positive attitude and could get things done.”
Knope believed that persistence and hard work could get things done for the good of the community. “Leslie Knope has become an icon, a role model for young people who are searching for positive role models in a world that seems more divisive, hostile, and polarized,” Spigel said.
The plan to upgrade Fernridge Park was developed by Peter Minutti, an assistant professor at UConn, who collaborated with the town and Friends of Fernridge Park – which split the bill and the community outreach efforts that led to the project’s overall success.
The Leslie Knope Promenade, also a joint effort between the Friends and the town, is a key element of the park’s new design, a wide paved area that encircles the pool house in the center of the park, from which all of the spokes – the pathways – branch out through the park to neighborhood streets.
Spigel officially thanked Schur for his donation, and thanked Rubino-Turco for her support and Miniutti for his vision for the park, which had the promenade as its backbone.
“This is the first step in achieving this vision,” Spigel said.
“I want to thank all of the Friends of Fernridge Park,” Spigel said, thanking those who donated their time and money. “Leslie Knope would love us. She would be so thrilled with the Friends of Fern. I’m thrilled with the Friends of Fern, we’ve stuck to it over the years. … we’ve really made improvements.”
“We share Leslie’s passion and commitment to our small piece of the world.” And paraphrasing Knope, Spigel said, “It’s time to embark on the steps of the journey and see where they take us.”
Friends of Fernridge Park’s fundraising efforts recently also led to a significant matching grant from Sustainable CT, used for landscaping.
“They’ve really invested a lot of time, energy, and thoughtfulness, and are also building local stewardship related to the park,” Rubino-Turco said. The enhanced relationship neighbors feel for a park help keep it safer, and ensure the park is well cared for.
The success of the Friends of Fernridge Park model will serve as blueprint for its successor, the West Hartford Parks Foundation.
“The West Hartford Parks Foundation will include all of the parks, and will focus on recognizing, supporting, and celebrating the value of public green space,” Rubino-Turco said.
In the future she hopes to hold some type of gala fundraiser, and hopes that Schur, and perhaps Poehler, will be willing to attend.
Much like the fictional Leslie Knope, Rubino-Turco, who has been in her Leisure Services role for the past eight years, is a big supporter of public space. The Parks Foundation has been one of her longterm goals.
“My love of public space, love for parks, has grown out of the work I have been doing for the last eight years, and more recently with the 10-minute walk,” Rubino-Turco said.
Last October, West Hartford’s participation in the “10-Minute Walk” campaign culminated with a ceremony and tree-planting. The 10-Minute Walk campaign, a national effort organized jointly by the Trust for Public Land and the National Recreation and Park Association, is based on the goal of everyone living within a 10-minute walk of a public park.
“I am very proud of all our accomplishments over the years,” Rosemary DaCunha, the longtime president of Friends of Fernridge Park, said in an email. She was sad to miss the dedication due to an out-of-town obligation.
“Much has been undertaken with our own sweat equity or connections who were subject matter experts and eager to participate in our projects. We raised our funding by ourselves with generous support from family, friends and neighbors. None of us had any experience in running such a nonprofit or the operational side of it (especially the fundraising!) but we figured it out and were successful. And through it all, we met many new friends and neighbors. It has been a great ride!!” DaCunha said.
DaCunha said she would love to see the transition of Friends of Fernridge Park into the West Hartford Parks Foundation by next spring.
“The board values its partnership with the Town of West Hartford, and we are proud of the work we have accomplished to foster that relationship and demonstrate the effectiveness of a private/public collaboration,” said DaCunha. Since our inception in 2011, we have achieved much using our time, talent and treasure with considerable assistance and support from our many neighbors and friends and the town. We recognize that we have nurtured our park advocacy organization to a point where it is time to launch it into a larger, broader and more persuasive one. We have been a success story to showcase once again the value of a collaborative partnership where groups can come together, be heard and effect change.”
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