White Knight? • New developer could give national park momentum
December 07, 2008
This is a pivotal moment for Coltsville, the former factory town in south Hartford developed by 19th-century industrialist Samuel Colt. It has the momentum to become a major destination for visitors and an economic engine for the region.
A new developer, Lance J. Robbins of Urban Smart Growth, is poised to take over rehabilitation of the iconic factory complex, which has been mired in financial uncertainty. At the same time, an extensive study of the feasibility of locating a national park there is ready to be submitted to the National Park Service. This synchronicity is the spark that could spur the project's success.
The study is an exciting springboard. It outlines three alternative visions for a national park experience on the site where precision manufacturing took root and where inventive genius flourished. It draws on the expertise of Colt scholars, museum operators, heritage and preservation advocates, civic leaders and neighborhood residents.
We prefer the most comprehensive option, which would showcase the entire 260-acre district and Colt-related buildings, be staffed seven days a week and managed by the federal Park Service. It would include ranger-led tours and, most important, an interactive exhibit inside the iconic East Armory where Colt manufactured firearms. A museum that tells the story of Sam Colt and his widow, Elizabeth, who ran the factory for decades after his death, would not be complete without some public access to the building under the blue onion dome.
The full-site scenario would convey a sense not just of the manufacturing, but of the working community that once thrived there. It would make available some of the $250 million worth of Colt-related art, artifacts and archives in Hartford and would help tell their story in a powerful way. It would provide the best opportunity to showcase the largely unsung contributions of Mrs. Colt, who was a major civic leader and benefactor.
This option is projected to draw 200,000 visitors a year to the capital city, far more than the simpler alternatives, but it is also the most costly. Estimated capital costs would be $9.3 million for the park-related space, with annual operating support of $600,000 required from the Park Service.
Public investment will be necessary no matter which scenario is selected, but the larger vision will be particularly difficult to secure given the state of the economy, the state deficit and city layoffs. Nonetheless, state and local support is crucial to the process. Significant revitalization of the community would be the ultimate payoff.
Another question is ownership of the Colt armory buildings. Mr. Robbins, a Californian, said he has the backing of Chevron Oil and a track record of successful redevelopment similar to the Colt project. He has a stake in historic buildings in seven states. For the past few years, he has been transforming a former weaving mill in Pawcatuck, R.I., into a village of offices, residences, artists and artisans. He professes passion for the potential of the Colt complex and refers to the property as historical "hallowed ground."
It is tempting to view him as a white knight. But he describes the pending deal to take over the project from Colt Gateway as complex and not yet final. Many have failed before him. If he does eventually prevail, the national park project will rely on Mr. Robbins' willingness to cede space in the landmark East Armory.
The study will be submitted Dec. 17. A public briefing will take place Dec. 18 in Hartford at a time and place to be determined. The Park Service has up to four months to finalize the study that its regional office helped develop; then Congress must act on it. U.S. Rep. John Larson, whose district includes Hartford and who has been a dogged champion, says the study has an excellent chance of passage.
This is Coltsville's big shot. But, as the congressman cautions, the state and the city must be willing partners with the Park Service to make it happen.
Reprinted with permission of the Hartford Courant.
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