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New London - New London is one of the last places Adm. Robert J. Papp Jr. will visit as head of the Coast Guard, and he is still hoping that plans for the National Coast Guard Museum will be far enough along that he can take part in a groundbreaking ceremony while he is here.
And after he retires, Papp said, getting the museum completed will be his "pet project" and his "passion."
In his remaining months in office, Papp said he will devote himself - almost entirely - to securing an adequate budget to keep the service running. Papp will be relieved as commandant May 30.
John Johnson, treasurer of the National Coast Guard Museum Association Inc., said the association is committed to holding a groundbreaking in early May because, while past commandants have advocated for a museum, Papp made it a top priority.
"The one who has done the most in such a short period of time to push this agenda forward has been Admiral Papp," he said. "That is the main reason why we want to have a ceremonial groundbreaking under his watch."
"I'm hopeful we might be able to have a groundbreaking or some step in the museum process while we're up there," Papp said in an interview Thursday. "The museum association has indicated some level of optimism so I'm focusing on that date."
Johnson said the groundbreaking would be ceremonial because the association needs to raise millions before construction can begin at the site, a 0.37-acre lot behind Union Station. About $170,000 has been donated so far, which was used to hire Odell, Simms & Lynch, Inc. in Virginia to plan the nationwide fundraising campaign to raise $50 million to $60 million, and a public relations firm.
The goal is to raise $1.5 million by the end of this month so the association can hire architects and a museum designer, Johnson added. The state has pledged up to $20 million for a pedestrian bridge and improvements to the city's regional intermodal transportation center. The association plans to ask the federal government for funding as well.
If money were not an issue, Johnson said, the association would buy the train station because getting permission to build the bridge across the railroad tracks is the "biggest sticking point right now." He said the association wants to meet with the train station owners before Christmas.
It is still realistic to open the museum in late 2017, Johnson said, but the opening could be delayed to 2018 or 2019 "if we start falling back, which happens with a lot of these big projects."
Meanwhile, state officials are working on an environmental assessment of the museum site, permitting and other bureaucratic requirements, said Bob Ross, the executive director of the Connecticut Office of Military Affairs and the state's point person for the project.
"I don't want to be in a situation where they have the funding in place and there are things we haven't done administratively," he said. "We're trying to stay ahead of the fundraising."
The city, state, Coast Guard and museum association are working on a memorandum of agreement that spells out their roles and responsibilities, Ross said. The groundbreaking could celebrate the signing of the memorandum or the city's transfer of the lot behind Union Station to the Coast Guard, if either one is done before then, he added.
"We're trying to go slow and get this right," Ross said. "… But because we're collaborating so well, I actually think it's moving pretty quick. When you think of a project of this scope, the progress we've made in the last six months has been pretty impressive."
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 barque Eagle may dock at City Pier.
Papp said he receives updates and is encouraged by what he hears, but he has to stay out of the details, legally, while he is on active duty.
Papp said he has "a high level of confidence" in the president of the museum association, James "Jimmy" Coleman Jr., and the association. Coleman recently received the 2012 Spirit of Hope award for his dedication and leadership to establishing the museum, and Papp said it is fitting that Coleman joins the distinguished group of past award recipients.
The only two decisions Papp says he has made about life after the Coast Guard is that he and his wife, Linda, will live in a house they own in northern Virginia, near their daughters and grandchildren, and he will work on the museum. Papp said if the association invited him to join the board or be involved in some other way, he would be "honored and privileged to be able to do that."
"I'll be able to throw my full weight into that once I'm retired," Papp said.
Before his change-of-command ceremony, Papp will transfer the ceremonial title he was given for holding the qualification as a cutterman longer than any other officer. Papp, the 13th Gold Ancient Mariner of the Coast Guard, became a "permanent cutterman" on Dec. 31, 1982, after five years of sea time aboard Coast Guard cutters.
The first week of May, Papp said, he will be relieved by whoever is chosen as the service's 14th Gold Ancient Mariner in a ceremony on board the Eagle, before the ship departs New London for its summer training cruise.
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Before that, Papp will be working on funding for the Coast Guard.
The automatic budget cuts, or sequestration, reduced the appropriations to the Coast Guard in fiscal year 2013 by 3 percent overall. The president's fiscal 2014 budget proposes an additional 5 percent cut.
Because sequestration was enacted last year, Papp said Coast Guard ships are spending less time at sea to save money. Consequently, missions are not getting done and some junior officers are finishing their first tours not fully qualified because they did not spend enough days underway, Papp added.
Migrants and drugs are getting through, Papp said, and fisheries are not being protected. Eventually, the Coast Guard will not have enough qualified people to fill all of the positions, or accidents could happen because people are not proficient, he added.
"We're really at a tipping point," Papp said.
Depending on the fiscal 2015 budget, Papp said he could have to reduce the size of the force or cancel plans to build ships and aircraft. He said he is proud of the people who serve in the Coast Guard and it would be heartbreaking to send them home.
On his recent annual international trip, Papp met with senior officials in Ireland, Bahrain, Sweden, Denmark and Great Britain. Given sequestration, the government shutdown in October, and the continuing resolution that is funding the government instead of a budget, they were "a little confused why such a great country can't get its act together," Papp said.
"When people look at the U.S., it is generally with a great deal of respect," Papp said. "We haven't tarnished that respect yet. It's just that we confuse people at times."
After three and a half years as commandant, Papp said he is satisfied with what he has been able to accomplish and he is more than willing to spend his remaining time on the budget. His replacement has not yet been chosen because the secretary of the U.S. Department of Homeland Security makes that decision and the department is currently being led by an acting secretary.
"A lot of people care about the service," Papp said. "I don't think anyone cares more than me. It's my privilege to be here, at this time, to do this battle."