Thames River Heritage Park plan aired

Groton — If the Thames River Heritage Park has a mantra, it would be “the whole is greater than the sum of its parts.”

Alan Plattus, executive director of the Yale Urban Design Workshop, repeated that phrase as he guided an audience of about 100 people through his plan for turning the heritage park from concept to a reality.

He presented the official blueprint, the culmination of two years of discussions, planning and organizing by a steering committee of local officials and representatives of historic sites on the Groton and New London sides of the river, during a meeting Wednesday at Groton City Hall.

It was a milestone in the recent revival of an idea that has been around for decades to link more than a dozen independent historic sites with a common connection to the river, anchored by Fort Trumbull and Fort Griswold state parks, the Submarine Force Museum and the proposed National Coast Guard museum, all connected by water taxi, signage and a virtual visitors center accessible by a smart phone.

“What we want to bring people to understand is that the real public space of this region is the Thames River,” said Plattus. “Groton Town, Groton City and New London are so much more powerful and interesting when they work together, and the symbol of that is the river.”

Plattus said the success of similar parks created in Baltimore’s inner harbor and Charleston, S.C., should boost the region’s confidence that this park can succeed, because it starts with a more authentic foundation than the others.

“It’s not just about history and heritage,” he said. “What’s unique about this park is that it’s not Williamsburg. It’s a living place, where shipbuilding and the Navy and the Coast Guard are still active parts of your community. I can’t emphasize enough how much cultural capital this region has in the bank, waiting to be invested. If you link them all up, they will do so much more for you.”

Plattus said that with coordinated scheduling, events, signage and other elements, existing sites can become linked into a force for “cultural and economic development for the whole region.”

Noting that creating the park requires no new buildings, he joked, “this is a great project for a bunch of architects. We’ve really become graphic designers for this project.”

In addition to maps and descriptions of what visitors would experience when visiting the park, the report also contains specific recommendations for each of the communities and anchor sites in the park.

The meeting was attended by several local legislators, representatives of U.S. Sen. Chris Murphy and Rep. Joe Courtney, D-2nd District, as well as Jessie Stratton, director of policy for the state Department of Energy and Environmental Protection. She carried with her a letter from Tom Tyler, director of DEEP’s state parks and public outreach division, verifying that an official act creating the park took place on July 6, 1990. The volunteer steering committee for the park had been seeking the document for months to ensure that its efforts could move forward.

“From our perspective, it exists,” Stratton said. “We will do whatever we can to facilitate making this possible.”

After Plattus’ presentation, Groton City Mayor Marian Galbraith, a steering committee member, updated the audience on efforts to secure a water taxi for next summer. Each of the three municipalities has earmarked $10,000 toward the water taxis, and state funding is also being sought.

“We are looking at every option, whether we have to beg, borrow or buy,” Galbraith said.

She added that the park is being conceived as a public-private partnership rather than having a traditional state park structure.

Kristin Havrilla Clarke, economic development specialist for Groton Town and also a steering committee member, said the next step is the formation of a transition team of 10 to 15 people. The group would work over the next year to obtain nonprofit status for the park, develop partnerships, and complete the management, legal and marketing tasks necessary to establish the park, she said.

j.benson@theday.com

Twitter: @BensonJudy

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