Published April 05. 2013 4:00AM Updated April 05. 2013 10:41AM
New London - When the mayor announced two weeks ago that the way had been cleared for the National Coast Guard Museum to come to New London, he said it took a year's worth of work to get people together to agree on the site.
But the idea of creating the museum in the city first came up more than a dozen years ago.
"It's been a long haul,'' said Cathy Cook, a former state senator who organized informal meetings in 1997 to discuss how to expand the small museum on the Coast Guard Academy campus in New London. The group wanted a place to show the Coast Guard's extensive inventory of artifacts and to tell the history of the service.
Cook, who had married a Coast Guard officer, had many military contacts. She brought as many as she could to the table, including Wade Hyslop, a state representative at the time who had served in the Coast Guard and is now a city councilor.
"We had been meeting for a year, just trying to get our arms around what we should do,'' she recalled recently.
In 2000, those interested in opening a museum took a tour of the region's tourist attractions, including the Nautilus Museum in Groton, Mystic Seaport and the Mashantucket Pequot Museum. They agreed the museum should go somewhere in New London, Cook said.
Around the same time, the New London Development Corp. was gearing up for redevelopment of Fort Trumbull. The project, next to Pfizer Inc.'s new global headquarters on Pequot Avenue, was expected to become an economic engine for the city, bringing in new businesses and housing. The NLDC designated a spot in Fort Trumbull for a museum.
In 2001, the nonprofit Coast Guard Museum Association was established with the goal of raising funds to build a museum. The first board included several retired Coast Guard officers as well as Cook: Rob Simmons, who represented the Second Congressional District; John Johnson, a local businessman; and James J. Coleman of New Orleans, now the chairman of the association.
"Our mission was to get the Coast Guard to decide on a museum and to get it in New London,'' Cook said.
Simmons, newly elected to Congress, made the museum one of his first priorities in Washington. All the other branches of the military had multiple museums, he recalled Thursday.
"And I thought that it was wrong the Coast Guard didn't have one," he said. He introduced legislation to allow the Coast Guard to establish, operate and maintain a national Coast Guard museum.
"What better place than New London? The Coast Guard has always been in New London,'' Simmons said. "I thought, why is it the Coast Guard doesn't have one publicly accessible museum? ... They have a story to tell, and it shouldn't be behind the gates of the Coast Guard Academy."
The Coast Guard has been part of the fabric of the city for more than a century.
But Simmons' legislation didn't get signed into law until 2004. It required the museum be located in New London. And that wouldn't have happened, he said, without the help of Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., who had lived in the area briefly as a child when his father was assigned to the Naval Submarine Base in Groton.
"We owe a lot to John McCain for standing up for New London,'' Simmons said.
The state of Connecticut pledged $10 million toward the project. But as the association began considering the land in Fort Trumbull, the Coast Guard started to distance itself because the city used eminent domain to take some of the properties and a group of residents had filed a lawsuit.
"Eminent domain absolutely had an effect on the project,'' Simmons said. "As long as it was in the courts, the Coast Guard did not want to push it.''
Coast Guard officials started looking for alternative sites in New Jersey and New York.
But following the 2005 U.S. Supreme Court decision Kelo v. New London, in which the justices ruled in a 5-4 decision that a municipality could take private property for future economic development, the project again started to move forward.
In 2006, then-Gov. M. Jodi Rell announced an agreement with federal, state and local officials to build a $60 million museum on about 2.7 acres in Fort Trumbull on land that was not in dispute during the eminent domain lawsuit.
The state renewed its pledge of $10 million. Jerry Ostermiller, former president of the Columbia River Maritime Museum in Astoria, Ore., was hired to lead fundraising efforts. The museum was expected to open in 2008.
But soon after, the economy tanked. And some Coast Guard officials remained leery of putting the museum on land near the site of the protracted eminent domain battle, Simmons said.
The project stalled until 2010, when the museum association began seriously considering waterfront land downtown. Owners of Union Station, the historic building designed by architect Henry Hobson Richardson, presented a conceptual drawing of a downtown museum accessible by car, train and boat.
Cook, who has remained active in the project since the beginning, said that plan sold Coast Guard officials on the idea of a downtown museum.
"We convinced them it was the absolute best place for them,'' she said.
The association took the idea to Mayor Daryl Justin Finizio early last year.
"We asked him to take the lead and get the abutting folks to play nice in the sandbox, so to speak," Cook said. "And he did it.''
Simmons, who is no longer on the association board, is confident a museum will be built on the city's waterfront.
"I've always felt we've had some extraordinary obstacles thrown our way. But New London is the logical place for the museum,'' Simmons said. "We have a lot of money to raise, but I think we'll see it open in three to five years.''