Coltsville National Park plans discussed during shutdown

Washington – Plans to build a new national park on the site of Samuel Colt’s factory and home in Hartford were considered during a congressional hearing Thursday, but the event was as much a platform for Republicans to complain about the shutting of federal parks as an opportunity to move legislation forward.

That didn’t seem to matter to the nine lawmakers, including Rep. John Larson, D-1st District, who wanted to promote local projects. Ignoring the swirl of politics engulfing the national park system, they gamely testified about their proposals’ merit.

Rep. Rob Bishop, R-Utah, head of the panel with authority over public lands on the House Natural Resources Committee, began the meeting with criticisms of the National Park Service’s decision to shutter federal parks and monuments — even the Statue of Liberty — as part of the federal shutdown. In the last government shutdown, which lasted for three weeks and began at the end of 1995, there was huge political fallout -– which fell mostly on the GOP – for the shutdown of national parks.

Bishop has advised the administration he’s going to hold hearings to determine whether the Obama administration ordered the “outrageous” closures in an attempt to “make the current lapse in appropriations as conspicuous and painful to the public as possible.”

On Thursday he reminded the American public, “you can always go to state parks” during the shutdown.

The federal government has been shut down since Tuesday because Congress cannot agree to a budget to fund federal agencies. Most federal workers are on furlough or working without pay.

No one from the National Park Service showed up for Bishop’s hearing.

Larson said creating a national park in the Coltsville neighborhood is needed to bring prestige to Hartford, and Connecticut.

He spoke of the birth of the Colt revolver, “the gun that won the West,” on the site as well as the innovative manufacturing methods pioneered by Sam Colt and his wife Elizabeth, who ran the company after her husband died “at a time women did not have the vote.”

“We’re talking about a very small parcel of land,” Larson said.

Plans for a national park in Coltsville have evolved over the years since it was first proposed.

The Coltsville complex, now designated a National Historic Landmark, sits on 300 acres and includes the blue-domed East Armory and other former Colt factories, the  Church of the Good Shepard, a parish house, Colt Park, buildings that were once used as housing for Colt workers, and Sam Colt’s house, called Armsmear.

But plans for a Coltsville National Park stumbled when the National Park Service questioned how they would manage a complex that has been largely turned into apartments, condos, business offices, schools and for other private uses. It’s likely that only 10,000 square feet in the East Armory would be opened to the public as a museum.

The National Park Service has also had concerns about legislation introduced by Larson, and supported by the entire Connecticut congressional delegation, that would create a 12-member “advisory commission” to develop and manage the park. That advisory panel would be composed of state and federal lawmakers, Hartford’s mayor and other appointees.

Coltsville supporters, including Larson, are negotiating with the National Park Service about their differences. 

At Thursday’s hearing, the talk was about having the park service manage the 10,000-square-foot museum in the East Armory and creating a partnership between the federal government and state and local officials to manage the rest.

“So we’re talking about a 10,000-square-foot national park,” said Rep. Doug LaMalfa, a Republican on the panel from California. “I could support that.”

Hartford Mayor Pedro Segarra testified about the job-creating potential of a Coltsville National Park.

He also took a dig at Bishop, saying the museum would be the only thing closed in the next federal budget crisis. “The rest of the park would not be subject to shut down,” Segarra said.

The city of Hartford and the administration of Gov. Dannel Malloy have already invested millions of dollars in Coltsville.

The House hearing on national parks was one of the few acts of congressional business since the federal government shut down Tuesday. Most hearings have been postponed or canceled. Few bills have been introduced.

The only real action in both chambers of Congress has been House votes on small budget bills that would fund select areas of the federal government — veterans’ benefits, the national parks, the District of Columbia government–- and the Senate’s swift rejection of those proposals.

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