New London Coast Guard Museum: Downtown vs. Fort Trumbull

The Coast Guard's pique over Riverside Park notwithstanding, it seems like a Coast Guard Museum, if one is ever built, is destined for New London.

After all, the location is written into federal law, thanks to former U.S. Rep. Rob Simmons of Stonington.

It wasn't that long ago, before the fundraising music stopped, that former Gov. Jodi Rell even signed a letter of agreement with the Coast Guard for building the museum here, pledging $15 million in state funds toward the $65 million budget.

Those were heady days, back when there was even a full-time museum director, someone actually planning exhibits.

Sure, laws can be changed. And the Coast Guard could end up eventually steering a museum to some place like New York City.

But that seems an unlikely scenario, whether folks in the service like or don't like the mayor of New London or whether the Coast Guard ends up getting land here to expand the Coast Guard Academy.

A more possible outcome of the museum saga is that a museum won't get built anywhere.

The service recently celebrated its 220th-year anniversary, and the way I see it that was 220 years without a museum. They can surely go another 220 without one.

But let's say the economy continues to improve, fundraising prospects look brighter and government budgets get more commodious over the next few years, and the museum gets back on course.

New London will then have to decide whether to get behind the original plans to build it at Fort Trumbull or decide on the latest suggestion, to build the museum into the handsome Union Station downtown.

The last thing New London needs is to have competing groups trying to lure the museum to their favored location, and then see the museum go somewhere else.

It seems like now might be a good time to begin building a local consensus as to where it should go, so that if the Coast Guard finally gets a green light for the museum they know in which direction to steer.

The Fort Trumbull site has a lot to recommend it. It is a blank slate for building a new project. It is a spectacular site, next to an historic fort and a beautiful state park. There is room for parking and for piers for ships and great views toward the sea.

On the other hand, a downtown Coast Guard museum could be transformative for the city.

It should also be an appealing site to the Coast Guard, a remarkable architectural landmark building that is a stop on the Northeast Corridor rail line. There is also water access to the port, a municipal parking garage and an interesting setting, a charming downtown with restaurants and shops at hand.

There are a lot of moving parts, though, and competing interests, like the ferry operators, who would need to sign on at the outset.

This looks like a job for New London's new mayor, to develop a public consensus for a site for a Coast Guard Museum, so that the work of getting it approved and paid for can go forward.

And once the Coast Guard gets that green light, everyone will know where they are headed.

I can't think of many better projects for the mayor to focus on - one that could become an icon of a successful administration - than the development of a national museum downtown.

This is the opinion of David Collins.

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