New London Mayor Daryl Justin Finizio appears to have received the message that he needs to shift the Coast Guard Academy and the potential construction of a Coast Guard museum higher up on his administration's priority list. The mayor has sent some negative signals the Coast Guard's way since the November election. This week the Coast Guard commandant, Adm. Robert J. Papp Jr., sent a message back - don't take the academy and its plans for granted. There are choices other than New London.
In an interview with Day Staff Writer Jennifer McDermott, Adm. Papp made it clear that if the academy cannot expand in New London, then it may have to expand elsewhere, potentially to its training centers in Yorktown, Va., or Petaluma, Calif. And if the politics are not right in New London, then perhaps a museum depicting the Coast Guard's history is better off going someplace else, Adm. Papp indicated. New York City is eager to have the museum, with Battery Park the likely location.
To his credit, Mayor Finizio responded swiftly to the published reports, writing to the Coast Guard commandant that he is ready to begin discussions about the needs of the academy.
The academy's superintendent, Rear Adm. Sandra L. Stosz, reports that she has yet to have any extensive discussions with the new mayor, but the two plan to meet soon.
Convincing the Coast Guard to have its museum built in New London is also of paramount importance, providing an opportunity to make the city a destination point. As we've said before, we'd love to see such a museum downtown in a renovated and expanded Union Station. That would be a game changer.
The academy had hoped to expand its campus to the adjacent Riverside Park. A prior City Council approved the sale of roughly half the 18-acre park for $2.9 million, but opponents petitioned for a referendum. The Day editorially supported this sale, persuaded that the city could use the sale revenues to improve the remaining parkland and convinced that the Coast Guard was too important a partner not to work with. As a start, the academy planned to build its new navigation simulation center there.
Some citizens vehemently opposed the sale, seeing it as an unfair land grab that would disproportionately and negatively affect a working-class neighborhood and public housing community. Mayor Finizio sided with that opposition.
The initial election results indicated a narrow approval, but a recount sent the sale down to defeat by 19 votes. Fair enough. Before the recount took place, however, then Mayor-elect Finizio pointed to language in the sales contract that he said would void the sale, even if the voter approval stood. This did not sit well with Coast Guard officials.
Nor could a branch of the military that has the job of blocking the importation of illegal drugs been thrilled to see that among the mayor's first orders was a pronouncement that police were not to pursue infractions against individuals possessing marijuana on private property. The mayor, under advisement from the prosecutor's office, subsequently repealed that order. Still, it left academy officers collectively shaking their heads.
While it's true that soon after his election Mayor Finizio indicated that he would work with the academy to find alternatives to the Riverside property for meeting its growth needs, the administration's lack of a quick follow-up left the impression it was not a priority.
So we welcome news of the coming meeting with the academy superintendent and the communication with Adm. Papp.
This mayor may have a lot of balls in the air, but he asked for the job.