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Coltsville's Big Moment

Surefire Survivor From near-fatal neglect to national landmark

Hartford Courant Editorial

October 19, 2008

Let's not permit economic jitters to overshadow a momentous achievement that became official last week when U.S. Interior Secretary Dirk Kempthorne signed off on Hartford's Coltsville Historic District as a National Historic Landmark.

This is a big deal and a tribute to a dogged group of visionaries and believers in the capital city and its potential. The designation, bestowed on fewer than 2,500 sites nationwide, acknowledges that the factory town developed by entrepreneur Samuel Colt in the mid-19th century, still largely intact, played a significant role in the nation's history.

It also represents a great economic development opportunity. After years of effort, the district which contains Armsmear, the Colt armory, Colt Park, the Church of the Good Shepherd and its parish hall, and worker housing has a fighting chance to become a national park.

The timing couldn't be worse. Renovation of the familiar blue-domed east armory, which would be the focus of the park experience, is stalled because of the private owner/developer's financial problems. Insiders are optimistic that a solution can be found to free up promised loans and get the project moving again, but the national financial crisis isn't helping matters. Meanwhile, the armory needs a new roof.

The state needs to step up and help preserve the armory, perhaps with a short-term loan.

There's no looking back now. The Coltsville national park study, authorized by Congress in 2003, is nearly complete. An ad hoc group of local stakeholders under the direction of U.S. Rep. John Larson's office has been working closely with the National Park Service and a museum consultant to craft a proposal for an interpretive museum and visitor experience that will tell the multifaceted story of Sam and Elizabeth Colt and their industrial empire.

Within the next two weeks, the draft proposal will be ready to submit to the National Park Service. A vote of Congress is ultimately necessary to create a national park.

Planners envision a space for visitors inside the armory, where Colt's Patent Fire Arms Manufacturing Co. played a key role in the American economy for nearly a century. This is the obvious spot for hands-on demonstrations and for showcasing some of Hartford's vast store of Colt artifacts. Access to the river under the highway and a streetscape that will lead visitors around Coltsville are said to be keys to approval.

None of this will be cheap. A national park will require investment by state, federal and, to some extent, city governments, to make it work no matter who's the developer.

Of all the stalled development projects downtown, this one is the furthest along and has the most potential. It may take a bit longer than expected to accomplish. But the Coltsville district has survived fire, flood, at least two economic depressions and near-fatal neglect.

Too much effort has gone into this vision to give up on it now.

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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