Published January 24. 2014 4:00PM Updated January 25. 2014 6:30PM
Groton — The research center that will tackle the global problem of climate change is also a "down payment" on the governor's commitment to southeastern Connecticut.
At the opening of the new Institute for Community Resiliency and Climate Adaptation Friday at the University of Connecticut's Avery Point campus, Gov. Dannel P. Malloy said Avery Point is a "real jewel in the UConn system," which to some extent has been "underutilized."
At one point Friday, Malloy scanned the audience for Groton City Mayor Marian Galbraith. "I made certain promises to you about our initiatives in this part of the state, and in this community specifically," Malloy told her and the group of about 100 who had gathered for the opening. "This is the down payment."
The research center was created to help municipalities, businesses and homeowners better prepare for the impacts of more frequent and severe weather and rising sea levels caused by climate change. Based at Avery Point, it is a collaboration among UConn, the state Department of Energy and Environmental Protection and the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration.
State DEEP Commissioner Daniel C. Esty said the institute will be a center of excellence for the country and the world. "It really positions Connecticut for leadership on an overarching issue of astounding importance for this state, this country and this planet," Esty, who will soon step down, said in one of his last public appearances as commissioner.
Put simply, the mission of the center, U.S. Sen. Richard Blumenthal said, will be "to save the world."
"So, no pressure," said Blumenthal, D-Conn.
Many state and local politicians, representatives from the Environmental Protection Agency, NOAA and DEEP, and UConn faculty and students attended Friday's event. H. Curtis "Curt" Spalding, regional administrator of the EPA's New England office, said the center will be a model for New England.
Galbraith said she has spoken with Malloy several times about what UConn can be, and how important it is to the area's economic development. She said she is thrilled the state chose to base the institute in Groton. "We're anxious to see UConn Avery Point grow," she added.
The mayor said she would like to see dormitories built on campus so more parents will want to send their children to Avery Point, since an influx of students would bring more energy to the community and help local businesses. At the start of the school year, Avery Point students began living in empty dorm rooms at Mitchell College. But that, Galbraith said, is a stopgap.
State Sen. Andrew Maynard, D-Stonington, who has advocated for more funding for the campus, said, "As the governor said, this is a down payment on what is going to be a lot of exciting change coming here at Avery Point."
UConn President Susan Herbst said in an interview that Avery Point "is as important as every other part of the university."
"It can do things with regard to research and teaching that cannot be done at any other place at UConn," Herbst said. "It is precious to us and we'll do our best, even in these tough times, to try to expand and to try to bring more people here and to try to bring more federal money here."
The institute will attract more students and researchers who are interested in climate change research to Avery Point, people who want to build their careers there by working on cutting-edge projects, Herbst said. It will raise the prominence and prestige of the campus, she added.
Michael Alfultis, the Avery Point campus director, said there are already many faculty members at Avery Point who can contribute to the center, from the experts in marine science and policy making to economists and historians.
Some part-time positions may be created, Herbst said, and companies that are already located along the coastline may decide to stay close to the institute while others that are farther away may move to the area.
U.S. Rep. Joe Courtney, D-2nd District, said the center's work is directly connected to the future economic viability of the region because the strategies will help municipalities prepare for the changing climate and mitigate risks. He also noted that the World Economic Forum convening in Switzerland devoted all of Friday to discussing the threat of climate change.
Connecticut has experienced severe storms in recent years and will face more in the future, Malloy said, which is why the state needs practical solutions to help communities better adapt to a changing climate. The state is using a $2.5 million settlement from a water pollution lawsuit to create the center and has applied for grants to run it.
The settlement, announced Dec. 5 by the U.S. Attorney's Office for Connecticut, resolved a pending case against the Unilever manufacturing plant in Clinton for violating its state wastewater discharge permit. The state sued the company, also known as Conopco Inc., in 2009 and 2012 over discharges of thousands of gallons of untreated wastewater into state waterways.
Esty said the institute "will be a legacy for all of us, decades out into the future."