Garde grant was Stillman's closing act

It was arguably the pièce de résistance of state Sen. Andrea Stillman's 22-year legislative career. Using her powerful positions as Senate chair of both the Education Committee and its School Construction Subcommittee, Sen. Stillman saw to it that a $31 million grant for the Garde Arts Center was part of the $325 million school construction bill.

The grant will not only support New London's efforts to create an all-magnet-schools district, but also pay for long-needed improvements that will boost the viability of the Garde. The senator's 20th District includes New London.

While Sen. Stillman pointed to the support of a couple of fellow Democrats in the House, Reps. Ernest Hewett and Elissa T. Wright, who also represent New London, the reality is that this does not get done without Sen. Stillman. It was quite the coda to a legislative career spanning six terms in the House and five in the Senate. Sen. Stillman is not seeking re-election.

"I am very happy to have had the opportunity to help put the pieces in place before I left," Sen. Stillman said when interviewed Tuesday. "Now it will be up to local officials to take best advantage of the opportunity."

Before any release of funds, the Garde, New London Board of Education, the state Department of Education and the state Department of Administrative Services must agree on a memorandum of understanding providing project details. The Garde project could play a major role in the downtown's revitalization and city officials cannot afford to mess this up.

The Garde would take on the dual role as the New London Magnet School of Visual and Performing Arts. It would thus help meet one of the study tracks - arts, performing, visual and literary - outlined by the Board of Education as part of its magnet-school approach. Adjoining buildings, owned by the Garde, are suited for conversion to learning space.

This would not mean training future performers or stagehands, but rather making learning more engaging for those with an artistic bent, just as the planned public service and the science and technology tracks will incorporate those interests into the curriculum. The magnet approach is also a means to boost state aid, while increasing the social and economic diversity of city schools by attracting students from surrounding suburbs.

The grant will also fund improvements to further the nonprofit Garde's mission to be a performing arts center for the region. The addition of a small theater, roughly 200 seats, will attract acts that can't fill the 1,400-seat theater. A back-stage expansion will attract productions that now shun the Garde due to cramped quarters.

School functions during the day and improvements that keep the theater active more nights will mean increased activity in the downtown, helping drive redevelopment. The economic boost should prove well worth the state investment, while also meeting an educational need.

The vision of a vibrant Garde at the top of State Street and a busy National Coast Guard Museum on the waterfront is an exciting one for the downtown district's future.

The political play that landed the grant was artistic in its own right.

Sen. Stillman and others in the delegation had been quietly working with the administration for about a year. With Gov. Dannel P. Malloy facing a tough re-election and eager to burnish his image in southeastern Connecticut and as an education reformer, administration officials were receptive. The question was how to fund the unusual project, involving a theater upgrade with an educational component.

It was Office of Policy and Management Secretary Benjamin Barnes who suggested the school construction bill, Sen. Stillman said.

The beauty of that annual bill - at least from the perspective of bringing home the bacon - is that at some point all legislators will want some school project in their district included and so are reluctant to oppose it. This year the bill passed 142-2 in the House and unanimously in the Senate.

While school projects included in the bill typically require local matching payments, the $31 million for the Garde is an outright grant.

Whoever replaces Sen. Stillman in the Senate will be hard pressed to play the game as well.

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