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New London could take back land for downtown Coast Guard museum

A little birdy recently whispered in my ear and explained that there is a deadline for the National Coast Guard Museum Association to use the downtown site the city donated for the project, and if the organization doesn't build a new museum there by 2024, it could be asked to give the land back.

Indeed, after I heard from the birdy, I checked on the deed, which does set out a process by which the city can reclaim the waterfront property if it is not used "as the site of a newly-constructed" museum within 10 years of the signing of the deed, on May 24, 2014.

I have never heard this deadline publicly acknowledged. Certainly museum officials have not been discussing it, since at this point it looks pretty obvious they are going to be unable to meet it.

The birdy flew up to my ear after I recently noted that the project is dead in the water, with more then seven years of fundraising producing only $25 million in private donations, far less than the $50 million pledged by the state and federal governments.

In all that time, the association has barely raised half of what a now old, back-of-the-envelope estimate — $150 million — indicated would be needed to build on the complicated site. It's hard to imagine how much the project would cost if actually put out to bid today.

Certainly all the obvious trees have been shaken for donations by now. No new big donors are likely to come forward to rescue this sinking ship.

In 2019, according to the association's tax records, it reported raising $4.5 million and spending $1.9 million, including $1.4 million on employee compensation. That deadly spiral could continue for many more years.

The good news about the deadline, which the city wisely imposed in giving the land, is that it appears city residents may ultimately get to voice an opinion on the proposed site.

My guess is that, if put to a vote, the problematic downtown site, on a flood plain and on the wrong side of high-speed rail tracks, would lose in a landslide to a location in Fort Trumbull.

If not a vote by residents, the status of the whole project should get a thorough review and scrutiny by not just the mayor but all the elected representatives of the city residents on the City Council.

I believe Mayor Michael Passero and most of the other politicians representing the region have their hands over their eyes or fingers in their ears when the subject of the downtown museum comes up.

Every one of them likes to think it's going to happen someday, that the emperor is actually wearing clothes. It's the easiest answer.

When I asked the mayor about the deadline for the museum to be built on the donated city land, he said he's not worried.

"I am expecting the construction of the museum to be well under way by then," he wrote in an email, perhaps while watching a herd of elephants fly by his window at City Hall.

The museum association tried unsuccessfully not long ago to convince Gov. Ned Lamont to release money from the state's $20 million commitment to build a pedestrian access bridge to connect the museum to the downtown.

The association even dispatched the Coast Guard commandant to the governor's mansion, where he pressed this inappropriate request. They were asking the governor to change the terms of the original $20 million commitment from the state, which dictated that the bridge money would not be released until the museum was fully funded and ready to be built.

The most cynical side of my brain believes the association hoped that construction of the bridge, financed by the state, would satisfy the city's deadline for the site to be used by 2024. Readers can make up their own minds.

Gov. Lamont made the right decision in not releasing the bridge money prematurely.

New London, not just the mayor, should eventually decide whether 10 years was enough time to give the association to fund and build a museum on such a problematic site.

If it was, tell the association to move on to a cheaper, more practical location. And get it done. The brave men and women of the Coast Guard deserve some competence here.

This is the opinion of David Collins.

d.collins@theday.com

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