Aboard Amistad, state lawmakers call for financial solution

New London — Speaking from aboard the schooner Amistad Sunday morning, four state representatives thanked Amistad America for bringing the ship to Sailfest after it initially backed out of its commitment to the festival.

But they also expressed concern about the organization’s ongoing financial troubles — unanswered questions surrounding how the organization has spent $8 million in state funding and the debt its owes to small businesses, among other issues.

Rep. Diana Urban, D-North Stonington, called the Amistad “an amazing ship (and) an amazing story,” and said she was “so pleased that she is where she should be, which is here in New London.”

She went on, however, to call for “fiduciary responsibility” for the ship.

“We need people who have a background in finance to be able to get her out of these troubled waters,” said Urban, who until recently had been the only state legislator calling for answers about how the financially troubled organization has spent its state funding.

Following an announcement on Tuesday by the organization’s executive director, Hanifa Washington, that the ship would not attend Sailfest, Gov. Dannel P. Malloy sent a strongly worded letter urging Washington to bring the ship to New London from New Haven. In the letter, Malloy threatened to withhold future state funding for the Amistad should it not show up at Sailfest.

Although the Amistad arrived in New London on Saturday afternoon, the governor’s office announced that the state will not make any payments to Amistad America until a new funding agreement is negotiated and executed. That decision was made when it became clear that a state audit of Amistad America would not be done by June 30, said Malloy’s office.

Washington was present on the Amistad Sunday but refrained from commenting on issues other than the Amistad’s story and the educational opportunities available to visitors.

The ship is “a living history museum,” said Rep. Elissa Wright, D-Groton, during the press conference. “I trust that and expect that the Amistad will continue to honor its commitment to share this history with the Connecticut residents.”

Although Reps. Ed Jutila, D-East Lyme, and Betsy Ritter, D-Waterford, also spoke, Urban’s comments were the most lengthy and detailed.

After praising the Amistad’s mission and place in history, Urban went on to discuss the organization’s debt to the Norwich screenprinting business BMTees Inc., from which the Amistad purchased 349 T-shirts in 2006 and 2007. Urban said that BMTees’ owner, Deb Bilda, received the second of two good-faith payments from the Amistad this week — $500 of the $7,000 the organization owes.

Urban pointed to the shirt she was wearing, one of several she’d purchased from BMTees for her rescue horse farm.

“I paid for them immediately, because a small business cannot carry that kind of debt,” said Urban. “I will not stop until the small businesses who provided services to Amistad America are paid.”

Ritter echoed the fiscal concerns but called the ship a “fabulous” educational opportunity.

“I know that the waters are perhaps still a bit troubled, but I’m confident that with some time and a little work we’re going to be able to get there,” said Ritter.

“I also will look forward to welcoming the Amistad to New London next year for Sailfest, and (for) many future years,” she added.

k.catalfamo@theday.com

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