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New London - A National Coast Guard Museum in downtown would be a "long-term, huge economic driver," according to Mayor Daryl Justin Finizio, who cited a study that says the attraction could inject as much as $20 million annually into the region's economy and create hundreds of jobs.
The study, prepared late last year for the state by city economic development coordinator Ned Hammond and research assistant Matthew Spindler-Virgin, stated that locating the museum behind Union Station will lead to between $2.6 million and $9 million in increased annual spending downtown, depending on how many visitors it attracts. The report assumes a range between 220,000 and 500,000 annual visits, though some estimates have ranged up to 1 million.
Between 200 and 300 new jobs are expected to be created in the region as a result of the new attraction, according to the report, either direct employment or positions resulting from increased economic activity.
"The whole city is going to be buzzing for years," said Chip Green, managing partner of Green Ink Marketing Communications in downtown.
And that's exactly the idea, said Adm. Robert J. Papp Jr., the Coast Guard commandant. Downtown New London, which has hosted hordes of tourists during such events as OpSail and Sailfest, needs a place that attracts people to the waterfront again and again, a magnet to revitalize the city, he said. The year-round museum, open seven days a week, will fit the bill.
"We are going to restore the waterfront to its grandeur," Papp promised a crowd of dignitaries at the Science & Technology Magnet High School who gathered for the museum announcement Friday. "Life springs from the waterfront back into the rest of the city."
The economic-impact study said hosting the museum in downtown New London, right behind a passenger train station and within steps of major ferry services and bus routes, would likely increase the number of tourists who would visit compared with a previous site suggested at Fort Trumbull.
Ferries alone shuttle more than 1.2 million passengers through the area annually, the report said, while trains generate local ridership of 160,000.
Unfortunately, as the report notes, few of these passengers shop or eat in downtown. But local merchants are hopeful these habits will change thanks to an attraction that invites visitors to stick around rather than simply pass through.
"Hopefully they'll come for lunch, get a drink and stay for a while," said Kate Douglass, chef at the Bulkeley House Saloon on Bank Street.
"Anything that's going to drive traffic to downtown is exciting," said Mark Sebastianelli, owner of Stone Fleet Tavern Restaurant on State Street. "I get the feeling we might not recognize the downtown in 10 years."
The city's future is contemplated in the economic-impact study, which notes that lodging accommodations downtown are lacking. Only the Holiday Inn on Gov. Winthrop Boulevard, with 120 rooms, is within walking distance of the museum site and other potential linked tourist destinations, such as the Shaw Mansion, Nathan Hale Schoolhouse and Custom House Maritime Museum.
"The development of the U.S. Coast Guard Museum in downtown New London will undoubtedly entice new hotel developers into the city," the study said.
The most likely spot for a new hotel would be at Fort Trumbull, the study noted. The city's plan of development anticipates a 250-room hotel and conference center at Fort Trumbull, which is the original home of the U.S. Coast Guard Academy and a historic site in its own right.
The study said that more shops selling gifts, fine art and jewelry might result from the museum opening. Tourists visiting historic waterfront areas are known to spend up to $140 each on apparel, souvenirs and other gifts, according to the study.
Hundreds of thousands of annual visitors expected
While the current U.S. Coast Guard Museum, on the site of the Coast Guard Academy, has attracted only about 10,000 visitors since its reopening last May after extensive renovations, estimates on how many will visit the new space are much higher. The report notes that these estimates put it on par with several other local historical or cultural destinations, such as Mystic Seaport, Submarine Force Library & Museum and the Mashantucket Pequot Museum.
The National Museum of the Marine Corps, about 30 miles south of Washington, D.C., may be the best comparison to the planned National Coast Guard Museum in New London.
While many military museums are on bases or campuses, the Marine Corps facility is in Triangle, Va., not far from the Quantico base, in an arrangement similar to what is being planned in New London.
The Marine Corps museum also is right off Interstate 95, a convenience that helps drive tourists to the site and is expected to boost the Coast Guard museum as well.
The Marine museum boasts about 525,000 visitors annually, which lends credence to projections that the Coast Guard museum could top 250,000 visitors in its first year. (The official Air Force museum in Dayton, Ohio, attracts about 1.2 million visitors every year.)
"We do have a large economic impact, because when visitors come, they need a place to stay," Gwenn Adams, public relations chief for the Marine museum, said this week.
Adams said 45 percent of Marine museum visitors arrive on day trips, while a similar percentage travel more than 120 miles to attend. Nearly a quarter of visitors say they are staying at local hotels, bed-and-breakfasts or campgrounds.
"We originally thought there would be more military visitors," Adams said. "It's not as military-heavy as we thought."
The Marine museum, completed in 2006, is about 80,000 square feet - nearly twice as big as the Coast Guard museum would be. But the Marine Corps exhibit space has proven so popular that a planned expansion to be completed in 2015 will add another 40,000 square feet to the museum.
The museum attracts a good number of retirees, with 41 percent of visitors being 55 and over. Among attendees, men outnumber women about 3 to 2.
"We get visitors over and over again," Adams said, thanks to regular special events.
Potential is there
Former U.S. Rep. Rob Simmons, who had been an early advocate for the Coast Guard museum in New London, said he expects the space to bring in international visitors for conferences as well as serve as a national and local attraction. The museum's distinctive architecture and prominent location close to an Amtrak train station should help lodge the site firmly in the minds of people who might end up returning later on, officials said.
At the Air Force museum, nearly 6 percent of visitors are from overseas, and more than half are from out of state, said spokesman Rob Bardua.
George St. John, a Coast Guard spokesman, added that the relocation of key pieces from the National Archives of historic Coast Guard artifacts to New London should bring in a range of researchers to the region, including moviemakers and authors.
Robert Browning, chief Coast Guard historian in Washington, D.C., added that the region could capitalize on its proximity to other museums such as the Mystic Seaport and the USS Nautilus display in Groton by creating a maritime history trail that would tie them all together.
"They could jazz it up and make it even better," he said.