Coogan Farm Nature & Heritage Center opens in Mystic

Sean D. Elliot/The Day State Rep. Diana Urban, D-North Stonington, right, poses for a selfie with Denison Pequotsepos Nature Center Education Director Molly Check and Hoot, a barred owl, following the ribbon cutting Thursday to formally open the Coogan Farm Nature & Heritage Center.

MysticMore than 125 people, including U.S. Sen. Richard Blumenthal, U.S. Rep. Joe Courtney and Lt. Gov. Nancy Wyman, filled a tent set in the foundation of an old barn Thursday morning to celebrate the grand opening of the 45-acre Coogan Farm Nature & Heritage Center.

The ribbon-cutting culminated a 2½-year effort by the Denison Pequotsepos Nature Center and the Trust for Public Land to raise $4.1 million in public and private money to buy the land off Route 27 and create the heritage center. The nature center has stressed that the project, which will be open to the public, would preserve a piece of land with great environmental, historic and educational significance for generations to come.

Blumenthal told the crowd that the project shows “there is no stopping a group of citizens who are determined to do the right thing.”

“This remarkable gathering shows that citizen activists are the key to all environmental efforts across this country,” he said. “Think of all the people who will benefit from this living history. This is a wondrous, magical moment.”

Alicia Sullivan, the Connecticut director for The Trust for Public Land, said her organization was honored to partner with the nature center on the project.

“It fits every part of the mission of our national organization,” Sullivan said.

She said the effort was particularly valuable along the shoreline of Connecticut, where so little land is available.

But now, she said, the farm “will remain part of the fabric of this community for many years to come.”

“Many saw the value of this land and stepped up to the plate,” she said. “Congratulations on this victory for the community.”

Sullivan also thanked the Coogan family for not only being willing to sell the land to the center but waiting until the money was raised.

“They were willing to wait because this was about conservation,” she said.

In 2012, the nature center began the effort to preserve the 370-year-old farm, which had been owned by some of the town’s most well-known families.

After the Town of Stonington rejected a request to borrow $1.5 million to help preserve the property, the nature center and Trust for Public Land began an effort that eventually raised $4.1 million to purchase 34 acres from the Coogan family, renovate two buildings and create the park. The Coogan family agreed to donate an adjacent 11 acres to the center.

The Campaign to Save Coogan Farm received contributions from 760 individuals and businesses as well as grants of $600,000 from the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service and $500,000 from the state Department of Energy and Environmental Protection.

Since the purchase, a committee of volunteers has been working to transform the property into the nature and heritage center. Trails have been improved, brush cut, nearly 400-year-old stone walls exposed and an outdoor gathering space created inside an old foundation. Plans have been developed to restore the old farmhouse and an outbuilding for programs and exhibits. The restoration of those buildings and landscaping is slated to get underway this fall and be completed in the spring, according to nature center Executive Director Maggie Jones.

A 2-acre Giving Garden also was planted this year, with produce being donated to the needy through the Gemma E. Moran United Way/Labor Food Center in New London.

Jones, who was seriously injured in a bicycle crash two weeks ago, received a standing ovation from the crowd as she stood at the podium. She has shepherded the project along since its inception.

“Coogan Farm has been a special place going way back to pre-Colonial times,” she said. “It’s a remarkable piece of land. Coogan Farm gives us an incredible opportunity to increase the educational programs we are known for.”

Courtney, D-2nd District, who presented the nature center with a flag that flew over the U.S. Capitol, said there was intense competition for the Fish & Wildlife grant. While showing the importance of the property from a wildlife habitat perspective was easy, he said applicants also needed to have community support.

“The 760 donors made this happen,” he said.

Wyman commended all those involved in the project for “the work you’ve done to make this a lasting part of Connecticut’s future.”

Wyman also joked that she has spoken at a lot of places, but this was the best podium she had ever spoken at. The podium, with mushroom and acorn carvings, was fashioned from nature center logs and branches by Mike Charnetski, a member of its board of trustees.

State Rep. Diana Urban, D-North Stonington, said that early on in the process, Jones asked to meet with her and state Sen. Andrew Maynard, D-Stonington, to explain what she had in mind for the farm and how much it would cost.

“‘Are you serious?’” Urban recalled telling Jones. “Well, you were serious and you got it done.”

Urban, who is chairwoman of the legislature’s children’s committee, said the farm and its activities will help combat many of the issues her committee deals with, such as childhood obesity, children not getting outside with nature and lack of nutritious food.

j.wojtas@theday.com

Twitter: @joewojtas

If you go

What: A free community picnic. Residents are asked to bring their own food, although local vendors such as Zest Fresh Pastry and Meadowstone Farm will have food items for sale.

When: 5 to 9 p.m. Saturday

Where: Coogan Farm. Free shuttle buses will run from Mystic Seaport's North Lot, opposite Latitude 41 restaurant.

More: There will be children's activities, including performances by the Mystic Paper Beasts from 5 to 6:30 p.m., and live music by the Cajun/country band Big Mamou.

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