Correction 1:57 p.m. Friday, May 16: The original story referred to a grant received by South Norwalk Community Center as one of the reasons money was not available for the boxing program. The SoNoCC grant came from a different section of the grants on earmarked for facilities, according to Common Council President Doug Hempstead. The boxing program was under the “services” heading and was not affected by the SoNoCC grant.
NORWALK, Conn. – Travis Simms knows a thing or two about frustration. The former World Boxing Association super welterweight champion from South Norwalk had his pro boxing career disrupted by problems with promoters, causing him to have his title stripped when he filed suit against the WBA, only to see it returned – sort of – a year later in an out-of-court settlement, when he was declared “champion in recess.” He then fought the “other champion” and won his full title back.
Now Simms is experiencing more outside-the-ring boxing frustration in his bid to run a program for Norwalk’s youth. Simms has been trying, unsuccessfully, to get the city to kick in Community Development Block Grant (CDBG) funding for the program. He’s been knocked down more than once, but he says he has not been counted out.
“I’m going to get it started without the funding and we’ll be back again,” he said. “But like I said, this isn’t the first time that the boxing program has been advocating for CDBG funding. We’ve been doing this since the John Harris boxing club back in the ’80’s. Not one time have we gotten a penny from the CDBG grant for the boxing program. It’s all been operated out of our own pockets.”
Council members, in denying the $46,000 request for CDBG funding, said there just isn’t enough money to go around for all the non-profits that are looking for grant funding to provide services. The money that might have been available for the program instead went to a neighborhood improvement coordinator and the Mayor’s Summer Youth Employment program.
Those are both programs that have been running for years. Councilman Bruce Kimmel (D-At Large) tried to get the Board of Estimate and Taxation to take them on in the city budget to free up CDBG money for Simms. BET members said no.
Mayor Harry Rilling said at the May 5 BET meeting that he had worked with John Harris for years and knew what good was done.
“I would strongly recommend that in the future we support some sort of a boxing program in town because I think it is a good idea,” he said. “Mr. Harris ran the program for many, many years and he brought a spiritual component as well. He actually taught the young people a lot more than just boxing. If we were to be presented with something like that, some program that goes beyond just boxing, adds other components, youth development and those kinds of things that Mr. Harris added to his, I would totally support it.”
Simms said his boxing program would have helped South Norwalk youth year round for years to come.
“Boxing brings so many cures to individuals and I think that for them to not support a program like that I just think is disgusting,” he said. “I would love to give kids the same opportunity that I had coming from Roodner Court. … They’re only doing this because I am involved. I am a Democrat and I am on the council. Had I been a guy that wasn’t politically affiliated and I was coming off the street, I guarantee you they would have probably supported me.”
Besides buying equipment, Simms told Councilwoman Shannon O’Toole Giandurco (R-District D) at a recent meeting that much of the grant money would have gone to fund a director for the program. On Wednesday, he said that would have been Fred Kitt, who spoke at that meeting in support of the program.
South Norwalk youth go elsewhere to box every day but Sunday, he said.
“We have a host of fighters that are traveling from Norwalk to Stamford to train, or they have to go to Bridgeport to the Bridgeport PAL to train,” he said. “That’s another thing I tried to talk to Harry about; Bridgeport PAL had this boxing program for over 60 years and these guys are operating now at the old firehouse in Bridgeport on King Street. Why can’t we implement something like that here? Bridgeport never had a world champion boxer. Why don’t we invest in something like that? The city, we have enough money, we have enough property that’s being underused, let’s utilize those properties for something like that. I think it would be a plus and a win-win for the city.
“You know, you’ve got the summer before us,” Simms said. “We have no community center, we have no YMCA, we have no Boys and Girls Club, now what are those kids going to do but hang out on the streets? If you could out a program here to get them off then why not? There’s not one program that’s not really directed toward our kids in South Norwalk.”
The councilman would also like to see the fields at Nathaniel Ely School be utilized “instead of there being crab grass everywhere,” he said. He remembers going there as a kid to watch baseball games, he said.
“I think (Recreation and Parks Department Director) Mike Mocciae needs to rethink his strategies on spreading the city programs around the city instead of always at the beach,” he said. “I would like to see under Harry Rilling someone take the responsibility to honor (former Red Sox player) Mo Vaughn (who is also from Norwalk) … You have a two-time World Series winner, why don’t we have a program or have leagues after somebody like this here to inspire the kids?”