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Dormant idea for heritage park gets new look from lawmakers

Hartford - Local legislators are trying to revive the Thames River Heritage Park, first proposed in the late 1980s, and to do so, they are proposing to eliminate an advisory board made up of municipal representatives.

Current law requires the state departments of Energy and Environmental Protection and of Economic and Community Development to establish an advisory board of municipal leaders to advise them on boundaries, themes and sites before designing a heritage park. Senate Bill 314 addresses heritage parks across the state, but the impetus for the bill is the Thames River Heritage Park, which would connect historic sites on both sides of the river, possibly using water taxis for visitors.

Since 1987, more than $3 million has been allocated to the project. Some of those funds were used to build a boat dock on the Groton bank of the Thames while some went toward New London's Parade Plaza.

If this were about the waterfront in Baltimore, it would have been completed 25 years ago, said state Sen. Andrew Maynard, D-Stonington.

City of Groton Mayor Marian K. Galbraith, who is in favor of the bill, said, "The original advisory board hasn't met for years."

Any municipality affected by the heritage park would enter into an agreement or memorandum of understanding with the state, Maynard said. The idea "is to streamline it, to make it less cumbersome," said Maynard. "It is not designed to remove local authority at all, quite the contrary. We are trying to get something moving that for 20 years sat in cement."

The future National Coast Guard Museum in New London and a study by the Yale Urban Design Workshop, which was funded by the Avery-Copp House Museum in Groton, have encouraged local legislators to move forward, they said.

"It shouldn't be a hard thing to do, and we are just trying to make sure it happens sooner than later," Maynard said.

The DECD submitted written testimony in support of a heritage park in the New London-Groton area, saying the department looks forward to working with proponents.

In the past year, the Avery-Copp House Museum in Groton, the Yale Urban Design Workshop and a steering committee of local stakeholders have been pushing for the park, Galbraith said.

"Our experience has been that most of the people we have talked to, once they were reminded of the idea or had the concept explained to them, had the response, 'Well, this seems like a good idea, why wasn't it done in the first place?'" said Alan Plattus, a professor at Yale's School of Architecture and director of the urban design workshop.

Everyone agreed that there had been many hurdles in the past. The advisory board couldn't agree on how to develop, staff and fund a visitor center, said state Rep. Ted Moukawsher, D-Groton. Some of the funds were diverted from the project.

"The advisory board never really advanced anything," Moukawsher said. "It just didn't happen. So we are trying to find a new way, a more direct way of making this happen."

State Rep. Elissa Wright, D-Groton, said in written testimony that this new bill would provide more flexibility for managing state heritage parks and that because of technology such as self-guided tour applications on mobile phones, there is no longer a need for physical visitor centers.

Maynard said the new plan, if agreed to, is to have touch-screen kiosks at the National Coast Guard Museum, the Submarine Force Museum, Fort Trumbull State Park and Fort Griswold Battlefield State Park, as well as a mobile application.

"So no matter where you began, you would be guided - to the water taxi, to the other nearby spots of interest and to Groton and New London and back and forth - it's a really good way to have all these museums and local places connect and provide a more comprehensive and more interesting visitor's experience," Maynard said.

Maynard said legislators have been meeting with state agency representatives. He said he has spoken with the Department of Transportation about startup funds for the water taxis. In the beginning, the taxis would need funding, but beyond that, Maynard said, he doesn't expect a lot of expenses.

Plattus said the group is discussing multi-use trails for walkers and bicyclists so visitors could use their cars as little as possible.

Besides tying together historic and cultural sites, Plattus said it would likely bring more visitors to existing businesses and smaller museums and sites.

"I think in the long run there are significant opportunities on both sides of the river for more intensive development of various kinds," Plattus said.


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