Coast Guard Museum chairman: 'It is just getting better and better'

I spoke this week to James Coleman Jr., owner of New London’s downtown Union Station, because I was curious what was going on with the former Greyhound Bus station part of the property, which has been undergoing renovations since the fall.

Coleman, a New Orleans lawyer who bought Union Station for $3 million in 2015 to help facilitate construction next door of the proposed National Coast Guard Museum, of which he is chairman of the board, put me in touch with an architect working on renovations to the station.

The work on the bus station, which is slated to be new offices for the Mystic Whaler, is part of a broad rehabilitation program for all of Union Station, including new visitor restrooms, new offices on the second floor of the main building, storm windows, an elevator and handicapped-access improvements, said architect Mohamad Farzan of Newport, R.I.

But I was more interested in what Coleman had to tell me about progress on the National Coast Guard Museum.

Coleman, whose family sold its New Orleans-based bulk liquid tank farm business for $1 billion in 2014, is an early and longstanding patron of the Coast Guard museum, involved in its development since 1999.

An attorney, he has been involved with a wide number of family energy and real estate businesses in Louisiana. As the chairman of the Coast Guard museum association and, with the affiliated purchase of Union Station, one of its most significant sponsors, Coleman is certainly a major stakeholder.

If the museum is ever built, I suppose one day you could look back and call him the father of it all.

I shared with Coleman some of the skepticism about the project I’ve heard around town lately, as fundraising goals and deadlines come and go with little progress in sight.

After all, the original timetable was for the museum to open in 2018. That’s not going to happen.

Indeed, there is no longer even an official target opening date. Why set deadlines when you keep missing them?

Coleman seemed genuinely surprised to hear that people in New London have become pessimistic about the museum project.

“I fell like it’s never gone better,” he said. “It’s getting better and better.”

Indeed, from the long arc of time, from 1999, when the museum was just an idea, a lot is in place.

The Coast Guard owns the land. A preliminary conceptual design is done, with an environmental assessment underway. Gov. Dannel Malloy has committed $20 million in state funding toward the $100 million price. Another $30 million in federal funding — for exhibits — is hoped for, with $5 million already allocated. Another $11 million in private funds has been raised.

To Coleman, who has been at this for a while, that looks like a glass a lot more than half-full.

“I believe in it so much. It is just going to be so terrific,” he said. “Look at what we are doing and what we have already accomplished.”

Coleman is not only enthusiastic about the museum’s ability to tell the story of the Coast Guard but also to enliven New London with tourism. He likens it to the National World War II Museum in New Orleans, which travel website TripAdvisor calls the No. 1 attraction in that tourism-centric city.

The New Orleans museum just announced it entertained 706,000 visitors in 2017, the most in one year since it opened in 2000.

“Everyone loves it,” Coleman said about the New Orleans museum. “I think the same thing is going to happen in New London."

“It will be fantastic when it opens ... People will come from all over the world,” he said.

A little dose of Coleman optimism may be what New London needs these days, as many in the city revert to a pessimistic crouch.

Maybe Coleman has this one right. Look at how far the project has come, not how far it still must go.

This is the opinion of David Collins.

d.collins@theday.com

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