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Regional heritage park plan backers hope success translates to support

As enthusiasm about the successful launch of the Thames River water taxi last weekend carries into this second weekend of service, backers of a proposed regional heritage park that would have the ferry as a main unifying element are wondering how to sustain the momentum and find the leadership needed to make the park a reality.

"We're forging new ground here," said state Rep. Elissa Wright, D-Groton, who co-sponsored the bill passed in the General Assembly in May that retooled the 1987 law, enabling the creation of multi-site heritage parks and helping revive the decades-old Thames River Heritage Park concept. "There are many moving parts, but the communities coming together to launch the water taxi project bodes well for taking further actions."

The Thames River Heritage Park would link historic and cultural sites along the Thames River with the water taxi, common signage, touch-screen kiosks, brochures and possibly programming and scheduling. It would include such attractions as the Submarine Force Museum and USS Nautilus, Fort Griswold and Fort Trumbull state parks and the proposed National Coast Guard Museum.

The idea to revive the heritage park plan came out of consulting work done by the Yale Urban Design Workshop for the Avery-Copp House in Groton and drew support from local lawmakers and the mayors of Groton Town, Groton City and New London, among others, leading to the joint initiative to run the water taxi as a pilot project for two weekends this month.

"It was beyond what we expected," said Groton City Mayor Marian Galbraith of the taxi's popularity last weekend. "Now the next step is to work with the state to determine how to move this along."

Over its first two days of operation last Saturday and Sunday, the 44-passenger ferry, on free loan from Mystic Seaport, shuttled 1,921 passengers between Fort Trumbull and City Pier in New London and Fort Street in Groton. This weekend, free service will again be offered among the three sites, starting at 11 a.m. at City Pier and continuing on a 45-minute loop until the last boat leaves Groton toward City Pier at 9 p.m. The service will complement the Connecticut Heritage Maritime Festival in New London Saturday and the City of Groton Block Party on Sunday.

But how to translate the ferry's initial success into actions that would make the park more than a promising idea remains unclear.

"What entity is going to take this on at this stage, I don't know," said Penny Parsekian, development, communications and special projects consultant for the Avery-Copp House. The steering committee for the park is scheduled to meet Wednesday, she noted, and will discuss both the water taxi pilot and next steps.

Some of those involved are looking to the state Department of Energy and Environmental Protection to take leadership of the organization and administrative work needed to create the park, including obtaining funding from grants or other sources for a ferry operator and staff.

"It does seem to me that the state needs to take a more vigorous part in this," said Groton Town Mayor Rita Schmidt. "That doesn't necessarily mean funding. DEEP would be the most logical entity, since this would be a state park."

Two of the anchor sites - Fort Griswold and Fort Trumbull - are also state parks.

DEEP Commissioner Rob Klee, however, said that while his agency is supportive and enthusiastic about the park concept, it is not prepared to lead the effort.

"We're going to provide advice and guidance," he said, adding that DEEP does not have the funds to devote to a new park project. "The leadership and funding still needs to be determined. It needs to have a village to make it work. I'm confident that a leader will emerge in the local group."

Klee added that he would favor developing the park in incremental steps, including offering water taxi service again during events such as Sailfest in New London in July. DEEP will continue to make its docks available on Fort Street in Groton and at Fort Trumbull for the water taxi, he said, and is committed to working cooperatively with other sites in the park.

"The water taxi pilot was a first step in a whole lot of steps," he said. "We're not going to just jump from two weeks of water taxi service to a heritage park."

Another state agency, the Department of Economic and Community Development, has also been mentioned as an entity that could possibly take the lead in bringing the park to fruition. DECD spokesman Jim Watson, however, said the agency has not been presented with any formal request.

"It's premature to comment on what our involvement would be, because we have no proposal to consider," he said. "The drive has to come from the local towns."

Bob Ross, executive director of the Connecticut Office of Military Affairs and the state's coordinator of the National Coast Guard Museum, said he has requested a meeting with Klee to discuss reactivating permits issued in 2006 for a water taxi dock at the Nautilus. "I am very enthusiastic about the park and want to make sure the region's military heritage is an important element."

The path forward may become clear once the Yale Urban Design Workshop completes the report it is preparing for the Avery-Copp House, said Alan Plattus, director of the workshop. The report, scheduled for completion by mid-autumn, will outline "how to structure and implement the park and the ongoing management," he said. The individual sites that would be part of the park, he said, will continue to "take care of themselves," but there would need to be an administrator working at least part-time to weave them into a coherent entity visitors would recognize as the Thames River Heritage Park.

"People who are committed to this have the leadership ability to take it forward," Plattus said.

While several of the main attractions of the park already exist, he said, his report will call for the addition of key elements including narration and signs on the water taxi to give visitors the overall context of the park, and displays about the Thames River estuary itself as central to the region's cultural historic and economic identity and its "defining public space."

"We'd love to do more with the river and Long Island Sound, in a historic and environmental sense," he said.

While park supporters are eager for concrete plans for the park to solidify, they also recognize that, as the first heritage park in the state, some new and unique structure may have to emerge to take it on.

"It sounds like it would be a local coalition with state support," said Tammy Daugherty, director of the Office of Development and Planning for New London. "New London stands ready to participate. At this point, no one has a clear recipe for how to move it forward, but we are very enthusiastic."

j.benson@theday.com

Twitter: @BensonJudy

Water taxi schedule

Free water taxi service will be available from 11 a.m. to 9 p.m. Saturday and Sunday. The ferry will depart from City Pier in New London starting at 11 a.m., landing at Fort Street in Groton at 11:15 a.m. and at Fort Trumbull State Park in New London at 11:30 a.m. It will continue on a 45-minute loop, with the last boat leaving City Pier at 8:45 p.m., landing at Fort Street at 9 p.m. and then returning to City Pier.

Ferry passengers last weekend and this weekend are asked to complete a brief survey at www.averycopphouse.org/thames.

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