Coast Guard Museum project digs in

New London — With five signatures and a handshake, the land that will be the site of the future National Coast Guard Museum passed from the city to the Coast Guard on Friday.

Museum supporters gathered at City Pier with the barque Eagle and the lifeboat CG36500 as a backdrop to watch Mayor Daryl Justin Finizio and Adm. Robert J. Papp Jr., the Coast Guard commandant, sign the deed. Groton City Mayor Marian Galbraith and Norwich Mayor Deb Hinchey were there to witness it and to symbolize that the entire region will benefit from the museum.

“This museum will not only be a home for all the veterans of our Coast Guard, it will not only be an economic driver for our city and our region, but it will truly be a national treasure for all Americans,” Finizio said after the city’s law director signed the deed, certifying that it was complete.

Papp and Finizio then shook hands, finalizing the deal.

“I have the deed, can you believe it?” Papp said as the audience cheered. “I think I’m going to sleep with this tonight.”

Long way to go

Following the signing, a ceremonial groundbreaking was held on the pier — ceremonial because the association needs to raise millions before construction can begin at the site, a .37-acre lot behind Union Station.

The National Coast Guard Museum Association Inc. held the groundbreaking now because, while past commandants have advocated for a museum, Papp, who grew up in Norwich, made it a top priority. Papp will be relieved as commandant May 30 and then retire.

James Coleman, the association’s chairman who personally donated $150,000 to the museum Friday, described Papp as a “true visionary leader and the man, who more than anyone else, who has helped make this event today possible.”

Papp told the audience about how from 1925 to 1928, the head of the Coast Guard at the time solicited donations from Coast Guard units and $35,000 was raised — the equivalent of about $500,000 today — for a memorial in Arlington National Cemetery for the Coast Guardsmen who died in World War I.

“They raised it at that time,” Papp said. “They believed.”

Years later, when the memorial had fallen into disrepair, some of the service’s chief petty officers tried to repair it themselves in the middle of the night, before beginning another fundraising drive.

“We’re going to get into that tough section now,” Papp said, since the association’s national fundraising campaign is underway. “But I believe. I believe because I’ve seen what the chief petty officers of our Coast Guard can do, what the men and women of the Coast Guard can do. I’ve seen what our friends, the extended Coast Guard family, can do when they put their minds and hearts together in a common purpose. And that’s really what we’re doing here.”

U.S. Rep. Joe Courtney, D-2nd District, announced that the bill to mint a Coast Guard commemorative coin that could raise $2 million to $3 million now has more than enough co-sponsors, 301, in the House of Representatives.

Prior to the ceremony, the association had collected about $300,000 in donations for the $80 million museum since fundraising began June 1. The plan is to raise $50 million to $60 million and seek federal funding as well. The state has pledged to spend up to $20 million to build a pedestrian bridge across the railroad tracks to provide access to the museum and the Cross Sound Ferry terminal.

The ceremony also served as a way to kick off the design and engineering work to start the next phase of the project.

“We’re ready to go, and we’ve been ready to go,” Coleman said.

The lifeboat that was part of the backdrop for Friday’s ceremony was brought to New London from Chatham, Mass. CG36500 was made famous in February 1952, when its crew rescued 32 people from the ill-fated tanker Pendleton, which was wrecked during a winter storm off Cape Cod.

One of the association’s honorary chairmen, actor John Amos, attended the ceremony. Many in the audience have been involved with the museum project for years. To them, Gov. Dannel P. Malloy said, “Thank you for your diligence, thank you for never giving up, thank you for the fight you’ve waged.”

'Another milestone'

“This has been a dream for many of us, for some longer than others,” Malloy said. “Today we mark another milestone in reaching our ultimate point.”

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 Eagle may dock at City Pier.

“It will light the way to public service for so many, who will see in the storied careers and courage of the men and women who served in the Coast Guard a model for themselves to follow and to make our nation better and safer,” said U.S. Sen. Richard Blumenthal, D-Conn.

U.S. Sen. Chris Murphy, D-Conn., said the museum will be a place where children and adults from across the country can learn about “this great service,” the Coast Guard, and the state of Connecticut’s commitment to it.

The museum will be built to inform and inspire, Papp said, but also to serve as a memorial to the thousands and thousands of people who have served in the Coast Guard. “I believe we can get this museum accomplished,” he said. “Please join me and we’ll get it done.”

As the sun broke through the clouds Friday, the official party walked to the site of the future museum by the ferries and hoisted white shovels emblazoned with the words “National Coast Guard Museum.” Adam Wronowski, of Cross Sound Ferry, Coleman, Finizio, Malloy, Papp, Blumenthal, Murphy and Courtney struck the ground underneath a white tent.

“Bless future generations that will come here to study, to learn and to embrace where we have been so that they may know where we are going,” said Capt. John Dickens, the chaplain at the Coast Guard Academy, in blessing the ground. “Cement the past and the future with the present so that we may truly be one team: Team Coast Guard, Semper Paratus.”

Master of Ceremonies Kevin Cavanagh asked the party to turn the soil for the final time: “One more time — one, two, three ... there we go!” they all said in unison, as the audience applauded and cheered.

j.mcdermott@theday.com

Day staff writer Kimberly Drelich contributed to this report.

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