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Amy Perry passes leadership of Thames River Heritage Park to Catherine Foley

Amy Perry recalled that when she first became executive director of Thames River Heritage Park and told people about her job, she got a blank stare, and still got a blank stare after adding, "We're the nonprofit that operates the water taxi on the river."

After two years, she got a blank stare at the mention of TRHP but recognition of the water taxi. Now, she said, "When I tell someone I work for the Thames River Heritage Park, I inevitably get the reply, 'I went on one of your boat tours and it was just fantastic.'"

Perry was the first director of the organization, but she is now handing over the reins to Catherine Foley as she retires.

Perry, 63, said she thinks it's time for the park to have a different kind of skill set, noting that her experience in marketing was needed when the park was starting out, but now the focus is on programming and development.

Thames River Heritage Park grew from one boat in the water its first season in 2017 to two this past season, with a third planned for the future.

It also grew from just offering hop-on, hop-off boat rides to also offering themed tours. Two new tours offered this summer were Water, Wampum, & Medicine Wheels: Mohegan Life on the Thames, developed in partnership with the Mohegan Tribal Council of Elders, and Blowholes, Blubber, & Breaches: Whaling Tales on the Thames, led by professor, historian and veteran journalist Gail MacDonald.

Perry said the park went from offering 23 tours last year to 60 this year, despite a lot of bad weather, and increased the number of interpreters giving tours.

For the first time, the park also partnered with the New London Recreation Department to bring about 100 kids on the boat for Storytime on the Thames, thanks to a grant from water company Veolia.

Perry said the park relies significantly on a grant from the Department of Transportation and will for the immediate future. Other funding comes from other grants, ticket sales and donations, and Perry said the park increased revenues by about 12% this year by growing its history-tour business.

A focus on social services, economic development

Perry said Foley is "just what the park needs right now," and that she recommended Foley and the board selected her.

Foley — like Perry, a New London resident and age 63 — previously served as director of the Community Development Initiative of the New London Development Corp., executive director of the Boys & Girls Club of Southeastern Connecticut, and executive director of Covenant Shelter of New London.

Foley said she has done her work "with the perspective that doing right in our social services also has a great impact on our economic development, and I see this park as also being a big part of that picture."

She also runs MeetingWorks, a consulting firm that specializes in planning corporate and nonprofit conferences and meetings, but lost business when the COVID-19 pandemic hit. Foley took on a part-time job with Thames River Heritage Park earlier this year as waterfront and tour coordinator.

New water taxi dock moves forward

Thames River Heritage Park held its annual meeting last week at the Submarine Force Museum, and Foley said a big topic was the progress on the water taxi dock that is coming to the museum's Nautilus Pier.

Perry said the Connecticut Port Authority gave a $730,000 grant to build the dock years ago, but it took some time to get approval from the Navy. The town of Groton is giving the dock to the Navy as a gift, and use of the floating dock will be at the Navy's discretion.

Todd L. Schafer, acting assistant secretary of the Navy, wrote in a July letter to Groton Town Manager John Burt that "it is my pleasure to acknowledge this generous offer. The Naval Facilities Engineering Systems Command will issue construction permits upon the completion of all environmental reviews. Upon completion of the project, the Commanding Officer, of SUBASE NLON will be pleased to formally accept this gift in my place."

Sub base spokesperson Chris Zendan said this one-time delegation of authority was given after a Navy analysis to ensure the gift would benefit the Navy "and not be an unreasonable burden in the future." Zendan said the Navy signed an access agreement in September, allowing the town and its contractors to access the site to install the dock.

Burt said construction is planned to begin in January, and end in March or April. With the completion of the dock at the Nautilus, Perry said, a third water taxi boat will be made operational, and she feels that getting even a small percentage of Nautilus visitors on the water taxi will help Thames River Heritage Park grow significantly.

This dock will be in addition to the three landings at City Pier and Fort Trumbull in New London and near Fort Griswold in Groton.

e.moser@theday.com

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