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Museum is bright spot on city's horizon

New London just might be turning around - a national Coast Guard Museum, which has been in discussion for more than a decade - is closer than ever to becoming a reality.

But on the other hand, the long anticipated new construction at Fort Trumbull fizzled in 2013 when the developer failed to get proper financing to satisfy the Renaissance City Development Association.

Other big deals - the downtown ice rink came down after losing money for two consecutive years but a playscape in Riverside Park rose up to honor Emilie Parker, one of 20 first graders killed 13 months ago at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown.

In November, volunteers from the community and the New Jersey Firefighters Mutual Benevolent Association's Sandy Ground Project: Where Angels Play installed a playscape in three days at Riverside Park.

"Emilie's Shady Spot," was dedicated on a brilliantly sunny Sunday. Emilie's parents, Alissa and Robbie Parker, and her two younger sisters, Madeline, 5, and Samantha, 4, helped build the 2,600-square-foot pink and blue playground.

"She had a lot of love," said Alissa Parker. "My daughter would have wanted to give back. She thought so much about other people. She'd get the biggest kick out of this."

The New Jersey Firefighters built 26 playgrounds in Connecticut, New York and New Jersey to honor the 20 children and six adults who were killed in the shooting rampage at the school in Newtown.

New London Main Street, the nonprofit organization with the mission of revitalizing the city's historic district, gave up on the idea of attracting visitors to the downtown by offering an ice rink. The City Council backed the idea.

Main Street bought the 45-foot-by-90-foot rink with a loan from the city, which was to be repaid over five years with rink revenues and sponsorship income.

During its first season, the rink drew about 11,000 skaters, according to Main Street officials, and about as many onlookers. A survey of downtown businesses said the rink had brought more foot traffic downtown during the usually quiet winter months, and Main Street broke even. But last year, attendance was down significantly, according to Renee Fournier, Main Street board president.

In the fall Main Street announced the effort had failed and the rink was not going up.

It's for sale. So far no takers.

River Bank Construction became the designated developer in 2010 to build 103 units of housing on six acres in Fort Trumbull. Plans were developed, showed to the public, approved by permitting agencies and a shovel was nearly in the ground last spring when financial troubles arose.

River Bank, owned by father and son Irwin and Robert Stillman, proposed to self-finance the first phase of the roughly $20 million project and the RCDA refused to sign the deal without guarantees that the Stillman's cash would be used for the project. Several mediation sessions were unsuccessful.

By December, RCDA members were nearly ready to call the project dead. They intend to issue a new request for proposals in 2014 for new projects in the development area.

The head of the Coast Guard, Adm. Robert J. Papp Jr., is hoping to attend the ceremonial groundbreaking of the new museum on the city's downtown waterfront before he retires next year. And after he retires, the museum will be his "pet project" and his "passion."

The Coast Guard Museum Association needs to raise $50 million to $60 million before construction can begin at the site, a 0.37-acre lot near Union Station. About $170,000 has been donated so far.

Plans for the museum call for a 54,300-square-foot building with four floors of interactive exhibits, event space, lecture rooms and a reception area with a gift shop and café. The barque Eagle may dock at City Pier.

So it has been a year of fits and starts in New London. While prospects for the Coast Guard Museum are bright the lack of development at Fort Trumbull has been a disappointment for many.



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