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As National Park, Coltsville Would Bloom

Tom Condon

June 18, 2010

Ten days ago, I hopped down to Washington to testify in favor of the bill introduced in April by Rep. John Larson that would, if certain conditions are met, create a national park in Hartford's historic Coltsville industrial village. The Courant has editorially supported the national park idea for years, believing it would benefit the city in many ways.

I listed perhaps a half-dozen. If, as historical consultant Bill Faude observed, the major Colt collections in the area were brought together with collections of other firearms made in the city and other Connecticut Valley towns, this could be the leading historic firearms display in the hemisphere. There's great identification with Colt; I remember meeting some people who had come from the Midwest just to touch the building. With an actual museum, tourism would blossom.

But the real key is that national park status would expedite the redevelopment the adaptive reuse of the complex that stalled a couple of years ago when bank failures forced developer Robert MacFarlane to pass the dice to Lance Robbins and his firm, Urban Smart Growth. If the restoration project is completed, there would be a mixed-use community there with 500-600 jobs and 500 residents.

It's a smart growth development, in that it reuses an iconic 19th-century factory complex. Coltsville is on the river and on a semi-active rail line, possibly the next north-south line to see passenger service after the New Haven-Hartford-Springfield main line gets going. The project expands downtown Hartford.

These are all things that public policy should support. So, several people asked me last week, where does it stand? We've been talking about this and studying it for a decade. Can we actually do it?

It's a long way from a sure thing, but I'm optimistic. Let's start with the park. To qualify as a national historical park, a site must first be "suitable," which essentially means historically significant; and "feasible," meaning that the National Park Service has enough control and ownership for adequate public access and use. The Park Service agrees that the 19th-century factory town that Samuel and Elizabeth Colt developed in South Hartford, a focal point of invention and precision machining, is suitable for park consideration. But, a Park Service spokesman said, there are still feasibility issues to work out..

The Larson bill, brilliantly pragmatic, says, in effect, you get the national park if you work out the feasibility issues. This includes a requirements that the government have an interest in enough land to manage the park, plus at least 10,000 square feet of space in the East Armory for a museum and other facilities. Another requirement is that the owners of Colt collections, such as the State Library and the Wadsworth Atheneum, agree to make Colt-related artifacts available for display in the new museum.

To make this happen, the ownership issues must be resolved. Robbins, a real estate lawyer-turned-developer, has had to extricate the property from failed banks and a developer gone broke, which means clearing numerous liens and encumbrances to gain title to the property. Then he must arrange his own financing. He's been working at it for two years, and says he's almost there.

The good news is that the Capitol Region Education Council is bringing a 50,000-square-foot expansion of its Greater Hartford Academy of the Performing Arts to the Colt property this year (there is already a CREC school and offices there, so some employees have nicknamed the area "CREC-ville"). This helps make the broader project viable.

Meanwhile, the city is helping arrange a "TIF," or tax instrument financing agreement essentially a loan against future tax revenues that could allow Robbins to build 88 more apartments in the South Armory next year.

The city is also helping with streetscape and parking lot improvements. Although a significant amount of environmental remediation has been completed, a few areas still must be cleaned.

In two years, if all goes well, the national park will be approved and moving ahead and Robbins will be able, through a mix of public and private financing, to continue to renovate the rest of the complex.

Robbins can do this. Among other projects, he developed a former weaving mill complex in Pawtucket, R.I., into a very successful mixed-use complex called Hope Artiste. He's put several million dollars into the Colt project, and has a major lender, a subsidiary of Chevron Corp., poised to back him.

One of the really interesting aspects of Robbins' plan is that, along with restaurants, retail, residential, schools and software, he hopes to bring artisan manufacturing into the complex. Making things and selling them was Sam Colt's point 150 years ago. I devoutly hope it happens again.

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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