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Regatta event spotlights proposed park sale

New London - It was a decidedly pro-Yale crowd at Riverside Park on Saturday, but the annual regatta proved just a backdrop for an event that was more about the uncertainty surrounding the future of the 18.5-acre public space in the city's north end.

As Yale and Harvard rowers prepared to compete on the Thames River in the oldest collegiate competition in the United States, residents mingled and discussed the possible sale of half the park to the U.S. Coast Guard Academy for $2.9 million.

"I have been an advocate of the city maintaining ownership, and an event like this reinforces that," Mayor Marty Olsen said Saturday. "People who have exposure to Riverside will come back because they see what a wonderful resource it is."

Children played and enjoyed hot dogs and live music by Silver Hammer while their parents debated the pros and cons of the possible sale.

Last year, the City Council approved the sale of the park to the Coast Guard Academy, which wants to expand its 103-acre campus. Voters will have a final say on the matter in a November referendum.

George Shallcross, 10, who attends the nearby Winthrop School, enjoyed the day and the park, saying he participated in a sack race and egg toss, "but the egg broke in my hand the first time."

City Councilor Rob Pero, a Republican mayoral candidate who voted for the sale last September, attended and acted as co-host with the Friends of Riverside Park. The Friends, a loosely organized group, has hundreds of members and is campaigning to keep the park.

Pero said that he was impressed with the turnout Saturday, which was estimated at 300 people. While he reiterated his position on selling the property, Pero also said that the sale would benefit both sides.

"All in all, people need to come up here and know there's a referendum," Pero said. "The sale would cut the park from 18 acres to 9, and (Riverside) would still be the third-largest park in the community."

Over the past 15 years or so, the city has considered giving away or selling the park for several uses, including a magnet high school, a Coast Guard Museum and a homeland security training facility.

While all those plans fell through, there was little objection to giving up the land, which many said was underutilized and not well maintained.

But soon after the Coast Guard and the city began negotiating the latest deal, residents rallied to keep the waterfront park.

"Everything you see will belong to the Coast Guard, and they'll put up a fence, cut down trees and make a parking lot and a football field," said Sandra Schalk of New London Landmarks. "There is a historic neighborhood next to the park, and this park is their amenity and their open space. This is a very important aspect."

Democratic mayoral candidates Daryl Justin Finizio and Kathleen Mitchell, a Friends member, both spoke at the event of keeping the property and improving it. Mitchell said residents frequent the park and that losing it would be a major blow.

"The whole north side of New London has been ignored," Mitchell said. "People always talk about developing business downtown, but the areas of the city near the highway look like crap. Improving the park could act as a catalyst for the whole neighborhood."

As for the regatta? Pero said he'd root for Yale, "the underdog."

Pero, Olsen, Finizio and Mitchell all agreed on that point.

s.goldstein@theday.com

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