Coast Guard says it's not tied to New London

New London - If its academy can't expand in the city, the U.S. Coast Guard may consider moving some of its programs elsewhere.

And it also may change its plans to build a national museum here.

Adm. Robert J. Papp Jr., the Coast Guard commandant, said Thursday that the school has reached capacity at its current site along the Thames River. The Coast Guard made an offer to purchase a portion of the abutting Riverside Park to use for expansion, but city residents voted down that sale in November.

"I don't foresee any time in my lifetime that we would even consider relocating the academy," Papp said in an interview at the academy Thursday. "But I think there are certain functions that are here, within the walls of the Coast Guard Academy, that we could justifiably and reasonably look at moving to other locations."

Both the Leadership Development Center and a simulator used for training could be moved to free up space at the academy, he said.

The defeat of the Riverside Park purchase also may change plans to build the National Coast Guard Museum here in the city.

Papp said he sensed during the deliberations that there is a constituency that views the Coast Guard, or the federal government, as intruding into city affairs and taking its property. He said he wants to "be sensitive" to that and is looking at sites both in and outside of New London for the future museum.

Mayor Daryl Justin Finizio said Thursday that the Riverside Park vote was not a rejection of the Coast Guard. Instead, he said, people likened the sale to the eminent domain fight at Fort Trumbull, where many residents of the neighborhood lost their homes.

"I simply believe that the people of the City of New London felt that, yet again, the land of a poor neighborhood was being taken out from under them at a cheap price with little forewarning," Finizio said. "It would be taken permanently off the tax rolls and sold to an institution with interests outside of New London."

Papp is "misreading the vote" if he feels the city or its leadership does not welcome or appreciate the Coast Guard or the Coast Guard Academy, Finizio said. "I look forward to speaking to the admiral directly so I can give him that assurance," he added.

The Leadership Development Center offers 22 leadership courses to more than 6,500 officer, enlisted and civilian Coast Guard personnel annually, as well as technical skills training. The center, which opened on the academy grounds in 1998, has 85 employees, 56 of whom are stationed in New London.

A simulator used for training at the academy is obsolete. Papp said he likes the synergy the Coast Guard gains by having both the center and simulator at the academy. But without the real estate to expand, "We have to look at all our options and come up with courses of action for the future," he said.

The Coast Guard has training centers in Yorktown, Va., and Petaluma, Calif., where it could be easier to build, Papp said.

Finizio said there are options within the city for the academy to expand. He said he would not discuss the details because doing so would compromise any future negotiations.

"My administration wants to be a valued partner with the Coast Guard and help them in any way possible to do their mission and maintain their current operations, their expanded operations and their museum here in New London, which is their natural home," Finizio said.

Papp said he hasn't heard from the new mayor yet and is interested in hearing his proposals. "Maybe there is some other solution to taking care of our increased needs here," he said. "But short of that, we also have the option to go other places."

The legislation that established the museum states that it will be built in New London. Possible sites include Fort Trumbull, Union Station and Riverside Park - if the sale had been approved.

Papp said he loves New London and envisions a museum in the city, but there are other places that would like to have it. Battery Park in New York City is one option for an alternate site, he said, noting that laws can be changed.

"I really want to get a museum going, but does New London want us to expand in this area? Is there a base of support for a museum in the New London area?" Papp said. "If people are going to invest in this, they want to know that the Coast Guard is welcome, the museum is welcome and the public will support it.

"We're sorting through all these things right now."

Museum association treasurer John Johnson said the association plans to submit a report in the coming weeks that compares the Fort Trumbull site to Union Station. The fundraising is on hold until the site is selected.

The Coast Guard, Johnson said, "got rejected and they don't feel quite so hot for New London, and I can understand that."

"Time heals all wounds, and hopefully that wound will heal also," he said.

U.S. Rep. Joe Courtney, D-2nd District, said the possibility that the Coast Guard will reduce its presence in New London is "a very serious issue for the region." He said he spoke to the academy's superintendent and the mayor to urge the two sides to figure out a solution.

"Other parts of the country would drool over the opportunity to have a military academy as part of their future," Courtney said. "If we start seeing pieces of it taken out of the area, it would be a real loss to Connecticut."

j.mcdermott@theday.com

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