Washington — The National Park Service said Tuesday that it’s behind efforts to turn Hartford’s Coltsville neighborhood into a national park, with several conditions.
One is a new evaluation of the financial stability of the owners and investors in the 260-acre site on the bank of the Connecticut River.
A major Coltsville developer is Colt Gateway. A big investor is Chevron, an energy company that invests in Coltsville because it was designated as a National Historic Landmark in 2008, making the area eligible for special tax breaks.
“We want to make sure the funds are there,” Peggy O’Dell, deputy director for operations for the National Park Service, said after a hearing on the legislation. “National parks are for perpetuity.”
Lawrence Dooley of Colt Gateway said the National Park Service’s concerns about the financial health stem from the troubles of a previous developer — not his company.
“I’ve agreed in writing to open my books,” he said.
Dooley also said there are plans to build another 79 apartment units at Coltsville, with help from the city and his investors.
Since 2009, there’s been legislation in the House and Senate, supported by the Connecticut delegation, that would turn the complex of 19th century factories, the home of Samuel and Elizabeth Colt called Armsmear, the Church of the Good Shepherd and neighborhood gardens into a national park.
In testimony before the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee Tuesday, O’Dell also recommended that the bills’ sponsors, mainly Rep. John Larson, D-1st District, and Sen. Richard Blumenthal, D-Conn., remove a provision for a commission that would be in charge of development and management plans for the park.
Under the legislation, some of the 11 members of the commission would be appointed by Hartford’s mayor, Connecticut’s two U.S. senators and the congressional representative for the 1st District, who is Larson.
O’Dell said the National Park Service prefers to work directly with the project’s stakeholders on the park’s development.
The Coltsville legislation would require the owner of the blue-domed East Armory, now Colt Gateway, to donate at least 10,000 square feet for a museum and other park facilities, and the additional donation to the park service of a “sufficient amount of land” to help create a national park.
O’Dell said “much progress has occurred” since the National Park Service conducted a 2009 study that found some faults with the site.
“Significant redevelopment has already begun,” she testified. “Several of the buildings have been rehabilitated and are occupied as educational facilities, residential housing and businesses. Negotiations are underway between the developer and the city on an agreement for the East Armory building.”
That 2009 study said Coltsville Historic District failed to meet certain feasibility criteria because there was a lack of public access to the buildings — most are private residences — and because of worries about the financial stability of the developer who preceded Colt Gateway.
The promise to build a museum in the East Armory is meant to correct the feasibility issue.
Blumenthal said he is pleased the National Park Service supports his legislation, which now goes to a committee vote. “The Coltsville complex is a historic treasure, enshrining [Samuel] Colt’s powerful role in advancing the industrial revolution and manufacturing in Connecticut and nationwide,” he said.
Larson said he is “comfortable with the recommendations made by the park service and am confident they will be addressed as the bill moves forward.”
Dooley said he was generally happy with O’Dell’s testimony. “There are always caveats,” he said. “We are committed to telling the story of Sam and Elizabeth Colt.”
Samuel Colt is best-known for developing a six-shot revolver called the “Peacemaker.” He was also an innovator of the so-called American System of precision manufacturing, which involved interchangeable parts.
After his death in 1862, his wife Elizabeth ran the company for 39 years, one of the few women entrepreneurs of her time.