Coast Guard Museum Association honors 'First 100' donors to fundraising campaign

James Coleman Jr., center, the new owner of Union Station in New London, stands with Mayor Daryl Justin Finizio, left, and John S. Johnson during the ceremony Thursday at the station.
James Coleman Jr., center, the new owner of Union Station in New London, stands with Mayor Daryl Justin Finizio, left, and John S. Johnson during the ceremony Thursday at the station.

New London — With more than $24 million in hand, the National Coast Guard Museum Association on Thursday night held a decorative event at Union Station honoring “The First 100” donors who contributed to the campaign to build a National Coast Guard Museum downtown, as well as its chairman, James Coleman Jr., who secured a big win for the association with the purchase of the train station for $3 million last week.

As the sound of an incoming train was heard inside just seconds after Coleman began his remarks, he said, “I love that noise.”

And a few seconds after that a man’s voice was heard over the public address system.

“Ladies and gentlemen, my apologies, Mr. Coleman, I have to give an announcement. We have a couple of trains coming into the station,” he said, and then began listing the stops of the incoming trains.

“That’s music to my ears,” Coleman said to a roaring crowd.

Coleman has said that he intends to keep the building as a train station.

Mayor Daryl Justin Finizio introduced Coleman. Finizio said that he was honored to recognize “‘The First 100’ who made that commitment and took that leap of faith” to get the project off the ground and kick start fundraising.

“But amongst all of those whose initial investment and support has made this project possible, no one has done more than Mr. James Coleman,” Finizio said.

He also thanked previous Union Station owners Barbara Timken and Todd O’Donnell for restoring the building and keeping the train station running for many years. Timken and O’Donnell were listed together as donor 24 on the plaques recognizing the first 100 donors. Neither was present at the event.

On an average weeknight, only a handful of people can be seen sprawled across the benches inside the station. On Thursday, the first floor of the station was packed with at least 100 people including Coast Guard brass, public officials, community members and supporters, many of whom were the first 100 donors. Wine and hors d’oeuvres were circulated as the U.S. Coast Guard Jazz Band played in the background. The event was sponsored by Saybrook Point Inn and Spa, one of the first corporate sponsors, and New London Harbour Towers.

“I have seen the future,” Adm. Robert Papp, Jr., (ret.) who served as 24th Commandant of the U.S. Coast Guard, and is a member of the association’s board of directors, told the crowd.

During his remarks, Papp spoke of a recent trip to Tromsø, Norway, the second largest city above the Arctic Circle. While there, he visited the Polaria, a museum that focuses on Arctic exploration. The museum building looks like sheets of ice stacked on top of each other.

The museum sees “350,000 visitors a year in a town of 72,000 people above the Arctic Circle where the sun don’t shine three months of the year,” Papp said.

“I have seen the future,” he repeated.

Papp joked that he was embarrassed not to be on the list of the first 100 donors. By the time he called John Johnson, treasurer of the museum association, the first 100 spots had already been spoken for. The association raised $100,000 from those first 100 donors in two weeks.

Johnson announced that the association has raised “in excess of $24 million” so far. That amount includes the $20 million commitment from the state for the design, engineering and construction of a pedestrian bridge to connect Water Street to the museum, which will be adjacent to Union Station.

During a previous interview with The Day, Coleman said that the association “couldn’t start any of the architecture or planning” without first settling the ownership of the station. In a conversation before his remarks Thursday, Coleman said that he would’ve liked to give money to the association to purchase the building, but that he wasn’t able to do that because the “Coast Guard can’t own a train station.”

‘We have the front door’

“This is the last hurdle. We’ve got everything done. We’ve got a great project. We have wonderful property that the Coast Guard owns. We have the station. We have the front door to the whole complex right here. And I can assure you that I’ve never been more excited in my life about anything,” Coleman told the crowd.

Based on current design plans, visitors will be able to enter the front door of the train station and go right into the museum without going outside, according to Pamela Fink, with Quinn and Harry, which is handling public relations for the museum association.

The association planned the donor event months ago to center around the first 100 who contributed.

“That was what our intent was; we weren’t here to celebrate the, you know, acquisition of a train station by Jimmy Coleman,” Johnson said during his remarks. “I think Jimmy Coleman is taking the thunder away from all of you.”

The crowd, including Coleman, laughed.

Jefferson Harris of New London, who is an educational technologist at Pfizer, was the 18th donor to contribute.

“It’s great to see this many people involved and interested,” Harris said.

On Thursday, Harris added to his initial donation to “sweeten the pot a little bit, hoping they can keep the momentum going.”

He didn’t say exactly how much he gave, but it was more than $1,000 in total.

“I have a Navy background and the Navy has museums all over the place. Ship museums like the Nautilus and land-based museums as well. The Coast Guard doesn’t have one. This is going to be it, and it’s about time,” he said.

The McLaughlin family was the first to donate to the campaign. Frank McLaughlin, representing the family, urged those who have donated to pledge $15,000 more.

“What I’m asking you tonight is to be the 100 people that are going to pledge $15,000 ... $4 (million) is what we’ve really raised. So now, if you guys pledge tonight, we’ll have $5.5 (million) and that gives them something to go to Washington with,” said McLaughlin, who’s pledged $15,000.

The association is trying to change language in federal legislation that established New London as the site for the museum to allow for the Coast Guard to authorize money for construction purposes.

The $5.5 million, McLaughlin said, would allow Connecticut’s delegation in Washington, D.C., to “say people are contributing. It’s your turn.”

“Here’s how you can pledge $15,000 and sleep at night,” McLaughlin said, urging the donors to write a check for $1,000 that night or pledge that they’ll write him a check for $1,000 to join the $15,000 club.

The idea then is to give $5,000 after the next $20 million is raised, and another $5,000 after the next $20 million, and so on. In total, counting the initial $1,000 pledged, donors would give $16,000 each.

It appeared McLaughlin’s urging worked, at least for one person. Bonnie Young, whose husband served on the Coast Guard Barque Eagle, pledged $15,000 toward the end of the event.

j.bergman@theday.com

Twitter: JuliaSBergman

A crowd gathers Thursday at Union Station in New London for ceremony honoring "The First 100" donors for the National Coast Guard Museum.
A crowd gathers Thursday at Union Station in New London for ceremony honoring "The First 100" donors for the National Coast Guard Museum.

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