Are the stars aligning over Coltsville?

WASHINGTON–At first blush, the efforts by Connecticut’s congressional delegation to get the Coltsville Historic District designated as a national park look as quixotic as ever. As in past years, they’ve introduced the proposal in Congress, but it’s on a slow legislative track, with numerous obstacles in its path.

But supporters say the political stars may finally be aligning for this initiative, more than a decade in the making.

“We’ve made steady progress,” said Rep. John Larson, a major proponent whose 1st congressional district includes the site. “All the pieces of the puzzle are there.”

He and others concede that one final hurdle remains, and it’s a big one: winning congressional approval. But several other issues that have long delayed or blocked the Coltsville effort have recently been cleared.

The Coltsville district includes the Colt Fire Arms Manufacturing Company, founded by Samuel Colt, along with the Colt’s personal home and factory housing, among other buildings. Plans for the 260-acre site envision a mixed-use development with a firearms museum and other historical elements that highlight Colt’s place in America’s Industrial Revolution.

In 2009, the National Park Service produced a study that led to Coltsville’s national historical district designation, but it raised questions about whether the site should be incorporated into the federal park system. One concern that NPS officials cited was an outstanding tangle of liens left after one of the property owners declared bankruptcy. But earlier this spring, a key developer involved in the project, Lawrence P. Dooley of Colt Gateway, was able to clear those liens and gain financial control of the property.

In addition, Larson said that state officials are now more actively pressing for the National Historic Park designation, helping to snag private investment and clear feasibility issues.

“There is no finer spot in the state of Connecticut to be a National Park than this temple to the Industrial Revolution,” Gov. Dannel P. Malloy said at a Sept. 24 news conference promoting the designation. Malloy has made tourism a centerpiece of his economic recovery agenda for the state, and he argued that a Coltsville National Historic Park would be a major win on that front.

“Bringing 60,000 or 100,000 people a year to this site to enjoy that history and to understand Connecticut’s and Hartford’s contribution to the United States and the world is a very important project,” he said at the September event. Malloy pointed to state efforts to advance industrial clean up around the site and pay for roof repairs on the East Armory building.

Also at that September news conference, Coltsville got a significant boost with the public endorsement of a top Obama Administration official, Secretary of the Interior Ken Salazar.

“From my point of view, it’s a great candidate to put into the National Park System,” Salazar said after a tour of the Coltsville Historic District, with Malloy, Larson and other delegation members in tow. “And we will work hard to make it happen.”

Larson said that having the administration’s vocal backing is a significant coup that should provide extra momentum for the last step. But winning congressional approval could prove insurmountable-at least in this Congress.

Connecticut Sens. Joseph Lieberman, an independent, and Richard Blumenthal, a Democrat, introduced legislation to designate Coltsville as a National Historical Park in July. The proposal has been sent to the Energy and Natural Resources Committee, and Lieberman’s pushing to get a hearing later this month. Larson introduced a companion bill in the House along with other members of the congressional delegation. But it’s also still at the committee level.

The full House killed a similar proposal in the last Congress, when Democrats controlled the majority. Although the bill won a majority of votes-215 to 174-it was still defeated because House leaders brought it up under special rules that required a two-thirds majority. And Republicans, who were on the cusp of winning the House, were blocking almost every Democratic initiative at the time.

Larson, the chairman of the House Democratic Caucus, conceded that in the current Congress, he doesn’t have as much clout to get the proposal on the House agenda again, since his party is now in the minority.

He and others said the best route for the Coltsville proposal may be in the Senate, where they’re hoping the proposal will get wrapped up into a broader public lands bill. Such measures often get rolling in Congress when a backlog of national park designations, public land sales, and other similar issues pile up. Instead of passing such bills individually, lawmakers will wrap them into an “omnibus” proposal that usually sails through Congress with provisions favored by a number of states.

But it’s not clear that Senate Democrats will push an omnibus lands bill in this Congress. And if they did, it would likely meet strong resistance in the House, where some conservative Republican have voiced staunch opposition to adding any new National Parks to the system.

Still, Larson said he was optimistic. “We have a good shot to get it in this Congress,” he said. “We’re all hands on board.”