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Summer successes point to a bright future for tourism

The events of this summer and fall in our region, celebrating our deep and wonderful connections to the sea, should prove to even the largest doubters that the words "maritime" and "heritage" can attract not only tourists to our shores, but also the interest our residents.

It began in early summer with Mystic Seaport's relaunch of the whaling ship Charles W. Morgan, followed in September by the grand opening of the Denison Pequotsepos Nature Center's Coogan Farm Nature & Heritage Center, and big crowds at the Connecticut Maritime Festival. The frosting on all those cakes was the testing of a Groton-New London water taxi for two consecutive weekends, the brainchild of the Thames River Heritage Park organizers, and facilitated by Cross Sound Ferry.

The water taxis were packed. According to the Heritage Park steering committee, 4,200 passengers made the trip across the river, just 1,600 shy of the total capacity for all the trips Sept. 6, 7, 13 and 14.

Those crowds mirrored the thousands who lined the Mystic River to watch the Morgan sail for the first time in more than 75 years back in June. After a $12 million, five-year renovation, thousands more packed the New England ports of Newport, R.I., New Bedford, Martha's Vineyard, Cape Cod, and Boston to greet the ship on its summer tour.

Similar enthusiasm was displayed at the Nature Center's Coogan Farm opening in early September. The center partnered with the Trust for Public Land to raise $4.1 million to purchase and preserve 34 acres from the Coogan family. Meanwhile, the Coogan family donated another 11 acres to the center. Hundreds attended a ribbon cutting and a community picnic to celebrate.

A week later the Connecticut Maritime Heritage Festival brought gorgeous ships to New London Harbor and wonderful activities to the city's streets. It was a successful start to what we hope will become a new annual tradition. And the summer's Lighthouse Tours staged by the Custom House Museum brought folks up close to our "sentinels of the sea." Many of those trips sold out.

All of this adds to the argument that backers of the Thames River Heritage Park have been making since the circa-1989, an idea that was revived last year - the region can and should have an active and engaging maritime heritage park along both sides of the river.

The park would link sites in Groton and New London, including Fort Griswold and Fort Trumbull parks, the Submarine Force Museum, USS Nautilus and the planned National Coast Guard Museum. A steering committee initiated by the Avery-Copp House, which also would be one of the park sites, is leading the effort.

It was great news when Gov. Dannel P. Malloy endorsed the idea after seeing the success of the water taxi experiment.

Such an endeavor will be a valuable asset added to the already rich variety of offerings eastern Connecticut provides to visitors from around the world.

Tony Sheridan is president and chief executive of the Chamber of Commerce of Eastern Connecticut.


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