Committee files recommendations for Amistad's future

First mate Jesse Doucette, left, hauls on the halyard raising the Course Yard up the fore mast as the crew of the schooner Amistad rig the ship Monday, April 6, 2015 at Mystic Seaport. The financially troubled Amistad has been at Mystic Seaport since the fall with a small crew performing maintenance. Once the ship has been rigged it will move from the seaport to the New London waterfront for the summer. (Sean D. Elliot/The Day)
First mate Jesse Doucette, left, hauls on the halyard raising the Course Yard up the fore mast as the crew of the schooner Amistad rig the ship Monday, April 6, 2015 at Mystic Seaport. The financially troubled Amistad has been at Mystic Seaport since the fall with a small crew performing maintenance. Once the ship has been rigged it will move from the seaport to the New London waterfront for the summer. (Sean D. Elliot/The Day)

A committee set up by the court-appointed receiver to determine a future plan for the financially troubled schooner Amistad is recommending the operation of the ship be transferred to a new entity for the next two years.

The plan proposes supporting the ship and its mission with $342,000 in annual state funding and $50,000 Amistad would raise each of those years.

“Based on available data and input from maritime experts, it is reasonable to project that the new organization can be operated at a minimal but meaningful programming level during the first two years post-receivership for approximately $392,000 per year,” states the committee report filed in Hartford Superior Court Monday by receiver Katharine Sacks.

Under the plan the ship would remain in the state for most of its seasonal operations and regardless of its homeport would spend time in each of the state’s deepwater ports that can accommodate visitors. The ship would spend the winters, as it did this year, at Mystic Seaport. The ship’s official homeport is New Haven, but its berth there needs to be dredged. It will spend this summer at Amistad Pier in New London and participate in a number of maritime festivals.

"The Committee finds that a new charitable organization with a responsible governance structure and good fiscal planning can maintain and operate the S/V AMISTAD as a meaningful state flagship, resonating an inspirational moment in the State's history, and providing important teaching opportunities to Connecticut's public," the report says.

"Over time," the report adds, "the new organization would need to build an increasing base of support and revenue sources to enable implementation of a carefully planned, gradual expansion of programming and operations for the ship and the organization over succeeding years."

The Amistad Advisory Committee comprises 15 experts in the fields of nonprofit organizations, tall ships, community development and education. Many of them are from the New Haven area.

The three southeastern Connecticut representatives on the committee are Mystic Seaport President Steve White, Senior Assistant State’s Attorney Lonnie Braxton and Tammy Daugherty, the director of the New London Office of Development and Planning.

“The Advisory Committee’s recommendations are that the new organization’s initial operations should be modest, frugal and restricted to Connecticut waters, a significant departure from the ship’s utilization in recent years,” states the report.

In addition, the committee said it “emphatically advises” that the new operating entity should scale and rescale operations based on available revenue and good fiscal management, “without dependence on loans or other deficit circumstances.”

The committee suggests the new corporation’s mission should focus on year-round, dockside and on-deck educational programming for grades kindergarten through 12. The committee recommends that programs can be gradually expanded as revenue increases.

While some sailing programs may be offered in the future, the committee said sail training opportunities are not what makes the ship unique.

“A central land-based educational mission will serve and benefit more members of Connecticut’s public, and active sailing of the ship should be utilized carefully in the future to complement the educational mission, with great attention given to the control of cost and risk,” it states.

In the past the ship has sailed to Africa, Bermuda, the Caribbean and other distant destinations.

The report also suggests that in the first year, the new organization should be used “to maximize goodwill, credibility, and financial viability” with the development of the board and fundraising as its primary objectives.

The report states that unlike most wooden tall ships, the Amistad’s compelling story inspires the public, which in turn provides “heightened fundraising opportunities.” It states a new executive director should be in place by early January 2016. It recommends the new entity also develop partnerships with numerous organizations and institutions and become familiar with the operation of successful tall ship organizations.

It is also recommends the new operating organization comply with “the highest standards of fiduciary and fiscal responsibility and be obligated to provide annual reporting to the State that demonstrates compliance with these standards, thereby avoiding the repetition of Amistad America’s sad history.”

Amistad America, the organization that had run the ship, lost its nonprofit status after failing to file three years of tax returns. A state audit found many examples of lack of record keeping that made it difficult to determine how Amistad America spent the money it received from the state.

Amistad America also amassed more than $2 million in debt and some of the entities that are owed money have placed liens on the ship, which could be a factor in transferring it to a new entity.

“Significant consideration should be given in the near term as to the most appropriate manner for addressing the liens against the ship in order to ensure that this unfortunate chapter in the vessel’s history is closed,” states the committee’s report.

Addressing the liens and debt is up to Sacks and the court.

Sacks said Wednesday she could not answer questions about the report. She said she is awaiting a decision by Judge Antonio Robaina on her request to formally release the report to the media and answer questions.

State Rep. Diana Urban, D-North Stonington, the legislator who had pressed Amistad America to account for how it spent $9 million in state funding and to pay back the debts it owes to small businesses, welcomed the report's recommendations. Urban’s efforts led to the state audit of Amistad America and Sacks' receivership.

“This is what I wanted all along — an accounting of the taxpayers' money and continuing to bring this ship’s incredible story to the people of Connecticut,” Urban said, on hearing of the report.

She said the recommendation to keep the ship in the state would make much better use of it than taking it to far-flung locations such as Sierra Leone and Puerto Rico during hurricane season.

But Urban said she is still worried about the many people and businesses owed money by Amistad America.

“They need to get paid. We need to pay them,” she said.

j.wojtas@theday.com

Twitter: @joewojtas

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