NORWALK, Conn. – There’s money for a boxing program in Norwalk, Common Council members said Monday, while not committing to whether it will come from local tax dollars or be part of the allotment from the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD).
This was spearheaded by Councilman Bruce Kimmel (D-At Large), who said, “The city in less than five minutes would figure out how to fund” the Mayor’s Summer Youth Employment Program and the Neighborhood Improvement Coordinator if the Planning Committee voted to allocate $43,000 to the Travis Simms Foundation instead of those two well-established programs. The ultimate result was that the Planning Committee voted to approve a draft Community Block Development Grant (CDBG) action plan that is $43,000 over the cap set by the federal government, which has never been done before according to Redevelopment Agency Executive Director Tim Sheehan.
The draft is now in the 30-day public comment period. There will be a public hearing May 1.
“Not a lot of communities have a former world champion in boxing in their community,” Kimmel said. Plus, there is a tradition in Norwalk of a strong boxing program that made a difference in many lives, he said, the program run by the late John Harris. Although the proposal put forward by Simms did not “dot every I and cross every T” it should be looked at differently, he said.
“We have a unique individual in the city,” he said. “It’s more complicated because he’s a member of the Common Council. … We should bend over backwards and not demand that every detail of the application is done the way professional non-profits do them. They’re very good at it. Travis hasn’t been doing this kind of business for a number of years.”
Simms said his proposal started at $100,000, then dropped to $83,000. He said making do with less would be “extremely hard” but expressed determination to make it work.
“We can still do a lot with 44. I think when you’re talking about a program like a boxing program you want to make sure you hire a director. Someone who has experience with the boxing, with working with children. That’s what the majority of the funding would have went to, for a director to oversee this program for at least a year. Also to set up some initiative where we can actually start having funding resources without depending on CDBG.”
Simms has been working with the Police Athletic League (PAL) and Norwalk Economic Opportunity Now (NEON) transitional CEO and President the Rev. Tommie Jackson, he said. Arrangements have not been finalized but it looks like the program can go into the Ben Franklin Center, he said.
Director of Community Development Planning Tami Strauss asked him how much equipment he would be able to buy.
“We’ll make do with what we have. It will be extremely hard but I think it’s something we can achieve regardless of what amount we are able to obtain from the CDBG funding,” he said. “Obviously, you don’t want just have a hole in the wall boxing club and only afford a water bag. You want to make sure you are able to have all the supplies where all the kids can learn the art of boxing. Learn some good defensive skills and some good disciplining skills. So with that you’ve got to have a well-rounded gym that has all the equipment and all.”
Kimmel suggested not putting the mayor’s summer youth program and the neighborhood improvement coordinator in the draft. John Kydes (D-District C) voted with him on that, but Shannon O’Toole Giandurco (R-District D), Rich Bonenfant (R-At Large) and committee Chairman Doug Hempstead (R-At Large) voted against it.
“I didn’t vote against your program,” Giandurco said. “I think there is so much potential but I feel at this point there’s too many holes.”
Simms said he respected that, but, “There is currently not one program that targets these children in the city and has not been for many years. With the summer coming before us we have the opportunity here to save these kids’ lives.”
She suggested that maybe if he had said $20,000 for a director and $20,000 for equipment she would go for it. He said it would be impossible to fund a director for that.
“Right now you are putting the program in a tough position because to get all the equipment that the program like that would need would still be roughly around $50,000 and that’s on the short end. Then to add a director, that’s probably another $50,000. I’m trying to make it work either way we go about this,” he said.
Hempstead said there was nothing to prohibit the committee from advancing the draft at a higher amount than can be funded. The committee has $1,028,033 in CDBG funding to spread around, a 1.5 percent drop from last year. Of that, $146,813 can be spent on public services, the category Simms’ program is in.
Kimmel, who is chairman of the Finance Committee, said the budget numbers continue to look good and the economic shift is continuing in Norwalk’s favor. The operating budget is still well below the cap set by the council, and there will be money to fund the program, he said.
Kimmel said the council needed to give Simms a thumbs up to help him as he seeks other funding. He made the motion to exceed the cap as a “continuation of the process” and with the stipulation that it will be clear that the committee will stick with the cap eventually.
Strauss said Simms will need a confirmed location for the program, a Memorandum of Understanding with the facility, a budget of how the grant would be utilized and fundraising plan for the balance of the cost.
That passed unanimously.
“It is the first time we have put a draft action plan out there that isn’t consistent with the cap, but we are saying that ultimately the recommendation is going to be consistent with the cap,” Sheehan said.
The boxing program will be free for the youths, Simms said.
“This program is going to serve children all across the city,” he said. “However, it’s really going to be targeted to inner city children who are at risk, inner city children who are more prone to joining gangs and which is a huge problem, a huge epidemic in Norwalk over the last few years, where you have every summer kids killing each other in the urban community. However, that is really starting to really spread throughout our community and come into a lot of the suburban areas. That is starting to be a huge issue. So we can kind of put a program in place that really stops these kids in their tracks and gives them some guidance and direction. I think this program will pay for itself year after year.”
Harris ran a similar program on a shoestring for 40 years, he said.
“It made me a two-time world champion. I went to two Olympics,” he said. “Not too many kids will have the opportunity if a program like that didn’t exist.”
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