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Steering a better course for the Amistad

Fog has too long shrouded the mission of and money connected to the schooner Amistad, built at Mystic Seaport with state funds and designed to tell the story of Connecticut's role in freeing Africans once held captive aboard.

Now leased to a maritime education institution in Maine, questions have surfaced about how this group took over from the original organization, Amistad America, which lost its tax-exempt status after failing to file tax returns for three years. In addition, plans are underway for the ship to sail to Puerto Rico in August for the filming of an NBC series about the infamous Blackbeard - but nobody is saying how much money will change hands and into whose pockets the revenue will go.

Never mind that the 18th century pirate had nothing to do with Amistad, whose captives took control of the ship in 1839 and eventually were freed after a trial in New Haven and U.S. Supreme Court ruling two years later.

The Amistad concerns finally appeared on the radar of state authorities last week after revelations about its finances and mission were first reported by Day columnist David Collins.

Both state Rep. Diana Urban, D-North Stonington, and state Sen. Andrew Maynard, D-Stonington, are now demanding to know how Amistad America spent the $8 million in state funds earmarked for the vessel's construction, maintenance, programming and operation.

This newspaper is pleased that legislators are finally seeking such answers, but we are nonetheless troubled by the question: What took them so long?

We also must learn more details about why Greg Belanger, executive director of Amistad America, failed to file tax returns for his nonprofit organization for three years, and what kind of a deal he struck with the Ocean Classroom Foundation, the Maine group now using the ship to teach sailing.

Why should Connecticut continue to pay for its upkeep and operation if Amistad won't be sailing to various ports from Stonington to Greenwich, inviting the public aboard for tours and giving lectures to school groups?

Amistad is a magnificent vessel, and thousands of spectators crowded the banks of the Mystic River and the river itself, in kayaks, canoes and power boats, when it was launched in 2000. The schooner spent the next several years sailing Connecticut waters and around the country to tell its inspiring story.

We understand such an operation is expensive, and don't begrudge the use of some state funds to support the Amistad mission. But the public must know what it is getting for its money.

And Amistad belongs back in Connecticut, especially if the state continues to foot the bill.

Before sailing to Maine Amistad had been berthed in New Haven, but that location never attracted the kind of tourism needed to generate continued financial support.

Ideally, in our view, Amistad would sail back to the shipyard where it was built at Mystic Seaport.

There, museum curators who have a long, distinguished record of promoting maritime heritage would make sure that Amistad's story continued to resonate, and that the vessel remained shipshape.

The Day editorial board meets regularly with political, business and community leaders and convenes weekly to formulate editorial viewpoints. It is composed of President and Publisher Tim Dwyer, Managing Editor Izaskun E. Larrañeta, staff writer Erica Moser and retired deputy managing editor Lisa McGinley. However, only the publisher and editorial page editor are responsible for developing the editorial opinions. The board operates independently from the Day newsroom.


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