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The Southeastern Connecticut Council of Governments has offered to assist New London in upcoming talks with the U.S. Coast Guard Academy.
The top priority, said the new council chairman, Waterford First Selectman Daniel Steward, should be to support academy expansion in New London. If that can't happen, COG would work to keep any academy expansion in the region.
The COG executive committee met Monday to discuss the issue in light of recent remarks by Adm. Robert J. Papp Jr., the Coast Guard commandant, that the academy could expand programs elsewhere if necessary, and since New London voters last fall rejected the Coast Guard's proposal to buy half of the adjacent Riverside Park to expand academy programs.
Steward said the executive committee agreed that individual towns should not contact the Coast Guard directly - as Norwich already has done.
Steward sent a letter to New London Mayor Daryl Justin Finizio offering the agency's assistance.
"The SCCOG wishes to offer any assistance that it can provide to the City as it works with the officials from the United States Coast Guard in an effort to see that the Academy can grow and thrive in the greater New London region," Steward wrote in a letter copied to Rear Adm. Sandra L. Stosz, the academy superintendent. "If land in New London cannot be identified which suits the Academy's needs, the SCCOG and its nineteen other member municipalities stand ready to work with both the City and the Coast Guard Academy to locate the Academy's facilities in this region, where they have historically existed, much to the benefit of all the peoples of Southeastern Connecticut."
Steward's letter points out that the academy, along with the Naval Submarine Base in Groton, have liaison representation on the council of governments.
"I am grateful for the Chairman of SCCOG's offer of assistance," Finizio said in a statement Wednesday. "If, and when, the City of New London requires such assistance we will certainly let them know. At this time, the City of New London will negotiate on its own behalf to represent its own interests and will enter those negotiations represented by the elected executive of the city."
Finizio is scheduled to meet with Stosz on Tuesday.
Stosz is out of town this week, visiting preparatory schools in Georgia and Alabama affiliated with the academy, and was not available to comment, David M. Santos, communications director at the academy, said Wednesday.
Preston First Selectman Robert Congdon, former SCCOG chairman and a member of the executive committee, said he and Preston Redevelopment Agency Chairman Sean Nugent have received numerous calls and emails from town residents urging them to follow Norwich's lead and offer the former Norwich Hospital campus for a possible Coast Guard expansion.
But both said Wednesday it would not be appropriate for Preston to contact the Coast Guard Academy.
The Preston Redevelopment Agency is in negotiations with Stamford-based JHM Financial Group LLC in response to the town's request for proposals, and Congdon said offering the hospital property to any other entity would undermine those negotiations.
"Even if we thought it was appropriate to reach out to the Coast Guard Academy - and I don't think we should - we have an RFP process, and we need to stick to that process or lose our credibility with any developers."
Nugent hopes to present the first progress report to Preston residents within the next month.
Congdon also agreed that other towns should not approach the academy while New London is trying to negotiate.
"We should not have 20 towns contacting the Coast Guard and saying 'I have five acres,'" Congdon said. "I think the council of governments should work with New London to work with the Coast Guard."
Congdon and Steward said they were not criticizing Norwich for quickly offering to show waterfront property to the Coast Guard.
Norwich Mayor Peter Nystrom said the City Council will consider a resolution Tuesday that would proclaim the city's support for the academy in New London. But if the academy cannot expand there, then Norwich would be willing to host the expansion.
Norwich officials have a meeting scheduled with the academy superintendent Feb. 13.
Nystrom and Alderman Charles Jaskiewicz, who sent the letter to Stosz last week, said no one else in the region had voiced similar urgency to keep the academy expansion in the region after Papp's comments in The Day Thursday.
"I'm glad that COG is coming to the table saying 'we want to help,'" Nystrom said. "This isn't competition. This is to allow the Coast Guard to expand here. … We need to make accommodations for them, if not Norwich, somewhere."