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The downtown Coast Guard museum has become a sham

Let's be honest, it was a rich philanthropist from New Orleans who nurtured and helped fund the concept of building the National Coast Guard Museum on the downtown New London waterfront.

James Coleman not only brought on board his own lawyer, who for a while helped deliver momentum to the project, but he bought the downtown Union Station to help facilitate the use of the problematic proposed site.

But Coleman died two years ago, and there is no sign of the same kind of guardian angel appearing anywhere on the horizon.

Not only is the museum project dead in the water, having missed years' worth of deadlines for raising the money needed to build it, but the "back-of-the-envelope" guesses as to how much it might eventually cost are so old as to be worthless.

It is not even clear the necessary environmental permits to build it on a very difficult site — a flood plain on the wrong side of a high-speed rail line — would ever be granted.

Now that Coleman is not involved, are his heirs going to make the train station, crucial to building the new museum, available? Hard to image how you could make the project work without the station.

The museum was supposed to be built and open by now, but officials of the National Coast Guard Museum Association are now only vaguely talking about a 2024 opening. Based on where they are, that seems not just unlikely but impossible.

The city land for the site was signed over to the museum association seven years ago, and aggressive plans for raising $100 million and opening the doors in 2017 were announced.

In its most recent glossy newsletter, the association reported it has raised less private money, $25 million, than the amount committed from state and local governments, $50 million.

I don't see how you can characterize the many years of lackluster fundraising as anything short of utter failure.

Even if the organization raised as much over the next seven years as it did over the last seven, it wouldn't be anywhere near enough.

Most troubling of all, the robust museum association bureaucracy, without even a facility to manage, is blowing through the money with big salaries and expenses.

In its 2019 tax return, the association reported $4.5 million in grants and contributions and expenses of $1.9 million. If fundraising declines more, the group could easily end up spending more than it takes in.

Expenses for 2019, according to the tax return, include $1.4 million in employee compensation and benefits. According to the return, the chief of development made $220,000 that year, the president $155,000, the chief financial officer $101,000 and the head of communications, who has never returned my calls, $105,000.

No wonder fundraising is slow.

The good news for museum bureaucrats is that there is plenty of money in the pot to keep paying those salaries for years, even if there is no hope of ever having enough to build the museum. But where does that leave the Coast Guard, which needs a museum to tell its wonderful story?

The sad part of this is that there is a clear path toward building a Coast Guard museum in New London, as required by the enabling federal legislation. A free site could be made available at Fort Trumbull, where ready-to-build infrastructure and even parking is in place. They probably already have enough money.

A museum at Fort Trumbull, which I guarantee city voters would overwhelmingly approve over the troubled downtown site, would place the new museum adjacent to a magnificent state park, a historic fort and a working Coast Guard station.

The history of the Coast Guard is very rich there, much more than in downtown.

I blame the politicians, U.S. Sens. Richard Blumenthal and Chris Murphy and Rep. Joe Courtney, who have continued to support federal funding for this ghost project, what has become a sham.

At least Gov. Ned Lamont told the Coast Guard commandant no when he asked for the museum association to be advanced the $20 million the state has pledged, for a bridge across the railroad tracks, before money for the new building has been raised.

It's time for all the politicians to step in, acknowledge the reality that a museum is not going to be built on a flood plain downtown and put the project on a track in a way to finally forever honor the service of the brave men and women of the Coast Guard.

By all accounts, James Coleman was a great philanthropist with a fine vision for a downtown museum in New London.

But he's gone now, his plans have unraveled, and it's time to save the sinking ship and make it to safe shores.

This is the opinion of David Collins.

d.collins@theday.com

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