Ahead of gun-control votes, lawmakers honor Connecticut’s gun-making past

Washington — When Congress returns from spring break in two weeks, Connecticut’s lawmakers will support new gun-control legislation — and a bill that would honor a local, and arguably the most famous, gun maker in U.S. history.

Rep. John Larson, D-1st District, and Sen. Richard Blumenthal, D-Conn., recently introduced legislation that would make the Coltsville Historic District, the Hartford neighborhood where Samuel Colt’s factories and home were located, a national park like Yellowstone or Yosemite. The other members of the delegation are co-sponsors of the legislation.

colt dome

(image from Flickr)

But the campaign to turn the 260-acre Hartford site on the bank of the Connecticut River into a national park, which went nowhere when introduced several years ago, still faces hurdles, in Congress and with the National Park Service.

While it might be approved by the Democratic-controlled Senate as part of a national parks bill, in the Republican-controlled House of Representatives, there is little appetite to create new national parks.

In addition, the legislation gives the secretary of the Department of the Interior some discretion as to whether Coltsville has met certain criteria to become a national park.

And at least a few people involved in the Coltsville campaign admit that the timing of the legislation couldn’t be worse – it’s playing out as the federal government struggles to respond politically and legislatively to the December massacre in Newtown, which is less than 50 miles from Hartford.

Winning the West

Connecticut’s capital city is not only the birthplace of Samuel Colt, but also of the Colt Peacemaker, a six-shot revolver that became known as “the gun that won the West.”

On the website of the Autry National Center in Los Angeles, Colt’s revolver is called “the handgun of choice on the frontier because it was the first practical revolving firearm capable of firing more than one shot without having to be reloaded. It revolutionized the firearms industry and was the first truly global manufacturing export in American history.” (http://theautry.org/the-colt-revolver-in-the-american-west/overview)

The blue onion dome of Sam Colt’s former factory may be Hartford’s best-known landmark.

The company – now known as Colt’s Manufacturing Co. and located in West Hartford – is one in a coalition of firearm manufacturers that has been fighting new gun laws in Hartford and Washington. Colt’s has also threatened to leave Connecticut if the state approves tough new legislation.

History, not politics

But supporters of the Coltsville national park push are trying to divorce politics from history.

Larson said he introduced the bill on March 19, instead of waiting until the gun debate abated, to make sure the legislation would be considered when the relevant House and Senate committees work on legislation.

“The timing of introducing our Coltsville bill is 100 percent connected to the legislative process for inclusion into a National Parks lands package this Congress,” Larson said. “Through this process, the bill will be required to go through necessary hearings and markups under relevant committees.”

Blumenthal echoed his House colleague’s remarks, saying that the timing of the introduction of his bill March 19 was “pegged to other national park legislation.”

“It has to be done now, or we will miss an important window,” Blumenthal said.

Helen Higgins, executive director of the Connecticut Trust for Historic Preservation in Hamden, said the Coltsville project “is not just about the product”; it’s also about the use of interchangeable parts and other manufacturing innovations used by Colt.

She conceded, however, that the timing of the legislation is “an unfortunate coincidence.”

“Obviously, the revolver is a very big part of the story,” Higgins said. “But if we keep treading lightly, we’re never going to get anything done.”

Larson also stressed that Coltville is not just about guns.

“Sam and Elizabeth Colt created a community around manufacturing, widely recognized as one of the birthplaces of the industrial revolution,” he said.

William Hosley, who has studied and written extensively about the Colts, and who has a consulting company called Terra Firma Northeast, argues that Connecticut merits a new national park. There is only one in the state now, a small one commemorating the home and workplace of American Impressionist painter J. Alden Weir near Wilton, in Fairfield County.

Hosley pointed out that the Weir residence is not open to the public, which has access only to the grounds, so that site doesn’t count as a true national park.

“There are 18 national parks in Massachusetts. Doesn’t Connecticut deserve one?” he asked.

Hosley also said there’s a need for a place to display “$250 million in Colt-related resources squirreled away in broom closets in Hartford.”

A ‘landmark’ with apartments

Regardless of the merits of the project, the bipartisan fight over gun-control legislation may make it more difficult for Connecticut’s Democratic lawmakers to win needed GOP support for Coltsville.

And Republican Rep. Doc Hastings of Washington, head of the House Natural Resources Committee, which has jurisdiction over national park legislation, blasted President Obama last month for using his authority to designate new national parks at a time when the federal budget is undergoing cuts.

The National Park Service designated Coltsville a historic landmark in 2008.

“We have been gunning for this designation, and we have finally gotten it,” former Gov. M. Jodi Rell quipped at the time.

But Coltsville’s supporters weren’t satisfied. They wanted to promote Coltsville to national park status.

Bills to do that have been introduced since 2009.  That was the same year the National Park Service issued a report – that had been mandated several years earlier in legislation sponsored by Connecticut lawmakers — that said a developer’s financial problems and the public’s lack of access to the historic buildings made Coltsville a poor candidate for official designation.

The 19th century factories in the Coltsville complex have been turned into condos and apartments — something that once hampered its efforts to become a historic landmark.

Armsmear, the ornate, Italianate home of Samuel and Elizabeth Colt built in 1857, is a residence for older women and out of the reach of the public, the National Park Service said.

Coltsville’s Church of the Good Shepherd, built by Elizabeth Colt after her husband’s death, has never offered access to visitors nor has the Caldwell Colt Memorial Parish house, the park service report said.

Because so much of Coltville would be closed to the public, the National Park Service said it could not determine “specifically what the National Park Service would manage.”

Despite the National Park Services’ report, Larson introduced this first bill to make Coltsville a national park in 2010, and former Connecticut Sens. Joe Lieberman and Chris Dodd followed suit in the Senate.

A tax break

There’s a new developer, Colt Gateway, and a new investor seeking the tax break available to those who invest in historic properties – Chevron, the international energy company.

There’s also a new plan, included in the Coltsville legislation, to establish a 10,000-square-foot museum and visitors’ center in the blue-domed East Armory to provide public access to the historic site.

“It’s a beautiful way to reuse this old factory,” said Lawrence Dooley of Colt Gateway.

The rest of the armory would be turned into commercial and residential units, he said.

The latest Coltsville bills also set other requirements before the site could be designated a national park, including donations of land to the park service and written agreements that future uses of land in the historic district are “compatible with the designation of the park.”

The National Park Service is slated to testify on the latest Coltsville bills April 23.

Over the years, the service has been critical of some of the Coltsville legislation and more supportive of other bills. National Park Service spokesman Michael Litterst said the agency could not comment on the latest Coltsville bills until it gives its official testimony.

In 2011, former Secretary of the Interior Ken Salazar toured Coltsville, praising its historic significance.

The state and city of Hartford have invested in Dooley’s project to turn Coltsville’s historic factories into apartments, shops and business offices.

The Connecticut Department of Economic and Community Development has invested $6.1 million in the project, some of that money going to Coltsville’s former, failed developer.

The CDEC paid $1 million for a new roof on the East Armory; $405,000 to demolish a garage; $700,000 to help clean up oil and other hazardous materials in the courtyard area of the complex; and $500,000 to lure Foley Carrier Services into the South Armory.

Hartford Mayor Pedro Segarra also pushed for $5 million in bonds to help Dooley develop the South Armory. Dooley said he’s built 50 apartments there and plans to build another 79 units this year.

An economic impact study by the city at the end of 2011 said a fully developed Coltsville would generate tens of millions of dollars and hundreds of jobs. National park status would increase the economic activity by attracting businesses and investment, the report said.

Blumenthal said there’s another reason to make Coltsville a national park. It would protect the historic buildings from demolition and provide federal funds to “enshrine and protect” the site.

“The Coltsville complex is a historic treasure,” he said.