Naming of downtown site triggers wave of Coast Guard museum activity

New London - Sixty days after the announcement of a downtown site for the new National Coast Guard Museum, the city has begun the process of transferring land to the Coast Guard, a fundraising campaign is underway and a date has been set for the museum's opening.

"The work is just beginning, but it's very exciting. The commitment and the energy are sustained," Mayor Daryl Justin Finizio said Tuesday. "We've seen no let-up from the state, no let-up from the national Coast Guard or the (National Coast Guard Museum) Association and certainly no let-up on the city side."

The goal is to break ground within 11 months and open the museum by late 2017.

The city must transfer a 0.37-acre lot to the Coast Guard so permitting for the project may move forward. The parcel behind Union Station, bounded by Cross Sound Ferry and City Pier, was announced on April 5 as the site of the future museum.

The city's law director will issue an opinion on Friday, when Finizio meets with city officials, a Coast Guard liaison and Bob Ross, executive director of the state's Office of Military Affairs, as to what steps the city should take.

Finizio said he wants to complete the transfer in "a matter of weeks, not months," but first, the city must survey the land, the Planning and Zoning Commission has to review the deal and a public hearing will be held before the City Council. A clause will be included in the agreement stating that if the museum were not built, the land would revert back to the city, he added.

"We are looking to streamline the process to make sure we follow all the necessary legal steps and the city's interests are protected," Finizio said.

Plans for the museum call for a 54,300-square-foot building with four floors of interactive exhibits, event space, lecture rooms and a reception area with a gift shop and café. The Coast Guard barque Eagle may dock at City Pier.

In late May, the National Coast Guard Museum Association began asking supporters to donate $1,000 each. The group is now halfway to $100,000, the goal of its initial fundraising campaign, called the "First 100," John Johnson, the association's treasurer, said Tuesday.

The "First 100" donors' names will be cast on a bronze plaque in the order in which they donated, and the plaque will be placed in the entrance to the new museum.

Frank McLaughlin, project manager for the Renaissance City Development Association Inc., claimed the top spot by donating in his family's name before the campaign even launched. The seven members of the association's board quickly followed his lead, and many Coast Guard retirees have donated.

"I thought it was important that people step up immediately and get this ball rolling," McLaughlin said, adding that he feels the museum will be the city's "tipping point, the thing that will truly enable us to grow."

The association will try to raise $50,000 more in June to create a website and pay for public relations activities and the design of a national fundraising campaign by a professional fundraiser, and a total of $850,000 by Sept. 1 for engineering and architectural studies and permits, Johnson said.

The national campaign for the $80 million museum will begin in the fall and will solicit donations from corporations.

The state pledged up to $20 million to fund a pedestrian bridge across the railroad tracks to connect the museum with the local ferry terminal and train station, and to improve the city's regional intermodal transportation center. The state's Council on Environmental Quality posted a scoping notice Tuesday seeking public comment on the pedestrian overpass project.

Ross, who was designated as the point person for the state, said he has met with the commissioners of the departments of transportation, economic and community development and energy and environmental protection, and stakeholders in New London. The focus for the next year or so will be detailed engineering and design work, Ross said, and once the permits are in place, it should take about two years to build the museum.

"What will drive this schedule is fundraising," Ross said. "We have two timelines, one for permitting, design and construction, and the other for fundraising. One is dependent on the other, so I'm glad to see they're kicking off the fundraising effort and I hope it moves along as quickly as they estimate it will."

Johnson said the schedule is aggressive and challenging, but the association's members think it can be met. A museum opening in late 2017, he added, "will be a great Christmas present for the city of New London."

To contact the museum association, call (860) 443-4200.

j.mcdermott@theday.com

A model of the proposed National Coast Guard Museum was revealed in April during a presentation by the museum association at the Science and Technology Magnet School of Southeastern Connecticut in New London.
A model of the proposed National Coast Guard Museum was revealed in April during a presentation by the museum association at the Science and Technology Magnet School of Southeastern Connecticut in New London. Sean D. Elliot/The Day Buy Photo
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