One of Hartford's most frustrating questions — what is it going to do with the proud old Colt Building and its iconic blue dome? — is edging closer to an answer.
There are few bigger symbols of the city's failure to revive than the hulking Colt complex, which symbolizes for all the world both the beginnings of Hartford's wealth and the chronic malaise that hangs like fog over Hartford.
For travelers speeding by on the highway, it's a constant reminder of a faded place where you don't want to stop. Imagine if it were a vibrant complex that said pull over and check us out.
But now, after years of progress and setbacks, there is renewed support in Washington for designating the old gun factory and surrounding area as a national park, a vital and necessary move to push this much-needed project forward. Supporters see a living museum that tells the story of Colt and the rise of precision manufacturing in the Connecticut River Valley.
"This is a very small national park, but it is huge for us. We have momentum going for us,'' U.S. Rep. John Larson told me Tuesday. Along with other members of Connecticut's congressional delegation, Larson recently introduced new legislation that would make Samuel Colt's factory complex, including his Armsmear residence, a National Historical Park.
"It's the DNA of Connecticut,'' Larson said, pointing to the guns, typewriters and bicycles that once made this place matter. "It's who we are. It's the center of the Industrial Revolution.''
Larson, who promised me more good news about Coltsville in coming weeks, is right. We made the vital parts of America right here. A museum glorifying all this — and hopefully attracting visitors from around the world — seems like something that should have been done decades ago.
The big change is that the National Park Service and the Obama administration are now expected to endorse the project. The park service's failure to back a previous proposal was a major setback in the past. Gov. Dannel P. Malloy has also emerged as a strong supporter — with a promise of millions of dollars in economic development money to help restore the factory's east armory building as a museum.
"We have a governor excited about the prospect of a national park in Hartford, a mayor working with us to get this across the finish line, and a community dedicated to seeing this become a reality,'' U.S. Sen. Joseph Lieberman said in a statement released by his office.
Supporters emphasize that this project, which will take tens of millions of dollars in private and public investment, isn't just about a museum for gun enthusiasts. They envision a national park in the midst of loft apartments, offices, restaurants and other attractions.
They see a complex linked to the downtown, other museums and even Bushnell Park that attracts new middle-class residents to Hartford.
It's not so far-fetched. More than three dozen loft apartments are rented, with plans for an additional 80. Two major tenants, LexisNexis and the Capitol Region Education Council, call the Colt building home, bringing in hundreds of employees and students each day. The complex's penthouse loft is still available for rent — for only $2,500 a month.
"When somebody drives up the highway into Hartford, that visual of the Colt factory on the left-hand side has to look like something where someone says 'cool,' '' said David Panagore, Hartford's chief operating officer. "That is critically important to the image of the city."
Lawrence Dooley, the third developer of the troubled public-private project in recent years, sees Colt as "the tipping point for the convention center, the science center and Front Street." The park proposal extends to the edge of downtown, including Colt Park and the Church of the Good Shepherd, which borders downtown Hartford.
"People look at that dome with awe,'' Dooley said.
Unfortunately, people also look at that dome and keep driving. Creating a national park could change that and restore the Colt factory — and perhaps, one day, even Hartford — to its rightful place.
Reprinted with permission of the Hartford Courant.
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