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New London, Coast Guard closing in on museum reality

By Jennifer McDermott

Publication: The Day

Published January 09. 2014 4:00AM   Updated January 09. 2014 11:47PM

New London - With the future National Coast Guard Museum planned for downtown, it's as if the Coast Guard and the city are engaged, Adm. Robert J. Papp Jr. said.

Within the next month or so, they will sign a memorandum of agreement that spells out the roles and responsibilities of everyone involved.

"We haven't scheduled the wedding yet, but we're getting the marriage license," said Papp, the commandant of the Coast Guard.

Papp met with board members from the National Coast Guard Museum Association and Mayor Daryl Justin Finizio to talk about the museum while he was in New London Wednesday to speak at the Coast Guard Academy. He also visited Norwich Free Academy. It was the first time Papp, a 1970 NFA graduate, had addressed the students there.

The Coast Guard, on behalf of the federal government, the city, state and museum association will sign the memorandum at a public event in New London. Papp said he is hopeful there will be a second ceremony to mark the city's transfer of the lot behind Union Station to the Coast Guard when he returns to New London in early May, if it can be done by then. The 0.37-acre lot behind the station is the site of the museum.

The May date for the land transfer is a "very achievable goal," Finizio said.

Finizio said he liked the marriage analogy because the city and the Coast Guard have had a long relationship, with the Coast Guard Academy, barque Eagle and Coast Guard Station all located in New London. And, the city's "New London Loves USCG" campaign did end with the presentation of roses and cards to local Coast Guardsmen on board the Eagle on Valentine's Day in 2012, Finizio said.

"Particularly as we move toward the establishment of a great national institution located in our city, we want to make sure we continue to have the same strong relationship we have had in the past," Finizio said. "Whether you want to call it a marriage or a shared city or community, it's very clear the city of New London and the U.S. Coast Guard have already been partners for a long time. And I think now, maybe we're just finally making it official."

From February through May, there will be some sort of a milestone for the project just about every month, said Cathy Cook, the association's assistant treasurer. The federal environmental analysis is nearly finished and the association will announce the celebrities who will serve as honorary co-chairmen of the museum association in addition to golf legend Arnold Palmer, she said.

Marketing firm founder J.D. Power and businessman Ted Turner, who both served in the Coast Guard, agreed, Papp said. So, too, did actor John Amos, who was in "Roots," which was based on a novel by Coast Guardsman Alex Haley, and journalist Charles Gibson, who also served, Cook said. The association is talking with Al Roker, who produced the television series "Coast Guard Alaska."

"We're working very hard to keep things moving along at a brisk pace," Cook said.

Papp said he remains enthusiastic and optimistic about the progress.

"We've been very deliberate about this because we will not allow this to fail," Papp said. "We need to make sure that everybody, the people of New London most importantly, buy into this. Nothing will be successful if the people of New London are not committed and embrace this idea of development downtown, which I think is going to bring prosperity to this community."

The parties involved are not making the same mistakes that were made when the Coast Guard tried to buy land in Riverside Park to expand the Coast Guard Academy, or when other sites were picked for the museum, Papp said. Those deals fell apart, he said, because the groundwork that needed to be done beforehand was not, and in the case of the land deal that failed in 2011, those involved also did not communicate well with each other.

Finizio said he agreed, and that is "why we've been so engaged on this at the city level."

"It's hard to get people in New London to agree on much, but I think everyone sees the importance of this project and what it means to the city, and I think everyone is invested in its success," he said.

Papp will be relieved as commandant May 30 and retire. Moving this project forward, Papp said, was never a requirement of the job - he viewed it as an "extra credit project."

"As a Coast Guardsman, I think our service should have a museum," he said. "As the commandant, I'm the person that can make that happen or turn it off, and I've chosen to make it happen."

j.mcdermott@theday.com

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