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Colt Story Worth Repeating

November 4, 2005
OPINION by Bill O'Neal

I am passionate about the subject of tourism. For the past 20 years, I have worked with tourism destinations all over the world, including Connecticut attractions such as Mystic Aquarium and the Institute for Exploration. I now consult with the Connecticut Commission on Culture and Tourism. So I know a few things about attracting visitors.

And what I know is that great stories attract visitors by the thousands and millions. Here in Hartford we are sitting on one of the greatest stories in the world. It's the story of Sam Colt and his amazing armories.

It's the story of the gun that won the West. The story of the Texas Rangers and all those other legends - Jesse James, Wild Bill Hickock, Wyatt Earp, Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid.

This is a story that people all over the world find riveting. In fact, European and Asian tourists flock to U.S. sites associated with this tale.

There are also plenty of people like me who are fascinated about other aspects of American history, like our country's rise to industrial prominence. Colt played a pivotal part in that story, too. The manufacturing and marketing techniques pioneered by Colt spread to other companies across the country, making American ingenuity the envy of the world. This is a big story, and it is amazing that so much of the story is still intact in Hartford.

Best of all, the story of Sam and Elizabeth Colt is a great American love story. Sam and Elizabeth were true soulmates, and when he died prematurely in 1862, she kept the business running. In fact, Wyatt Earp bought his six-guns from Elizabeth, not Sam.

The truth is that Sam and Elizabeth left us with a wealth of stories. Told well, these stories could triple or quadruple the number of visitors to Hartford.

The obvious place to start thinking about telling these stories is Coltsville, the complex of buildings and armories that was the heart of the Colt Empire.

I have no stake whatsoever in Coltsville. I don't know the developers. I don't know the politics. But I know a great opportunity for Connecticut tourism when I see it.

Let us hope that Sens. Chris Dodd and Joe Lieberman are successful in securing recognition for the original Colt empire as a national park. That would be a great start. Then it will be up to the rest of us to marshal the necessary resources to create a unique visitor experience.

The resources available to us are staggering. We are talking about not just a firearms collection, but also a wide array of art, architecture and sculpture. We got a glimpse of the richness of these resources in 1996 with the Wadsworth Atheneum's exhibition "Sam and Elizabeth Colt: The Legend and Legacy of Colt's Empire."

I envision creating four permanent exhibits: one introducing Sam and Elizabeth; one dramatizing the gun that won the West (featuring all those great Western legends); one showcasing Colt's leading role in the rise of America as a manufacturing and marketing powerhouse; and one highlighting Colt's cultural contributions to Hartford's Gilded Age. Ideally, these exhibits would be housed in the main armory building. From there, visitors could be prompted to explore other aspects of Coltsville and the Colt legacy in Hartford.

Creating such a central attraction will require major cooperation among institutions that have pieces of the Colt story, including the Wadsworth Atheneum Museum of Art, the Museum of Connecticut History, the Colt home Armsmear and the Caldwell Colt Memorial House. But it will be worth it.

Tourism is vital to Connecticut's future. It is already a major driver of the state's economy, accounting for $9.9 billion in revenue in 2001, according to the University of Connecticut's Center for Economic Analysis. But it can be much bigger.

Hartford has a chance to be a rising star in tourism. Let's make it happen.

Bill O'Neal is a marketing consultant in Durham who created Hartford's slogan "New England's Rising Star.

Reprinted with permission of the Hartford Courant. To view other stories on this topic, search the Hartford Courant Archives at http://www.courant.com/archives.
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