Plans for Coltsville National Park move ahead, with changes

Washington – Plans to build a national park on the site of the Colt factory in Hartford have moved ahead in the House of Representatives, but with alterations by a Utah Republican who wanted to make the project more acceptable to the Interior Department.

One big change is an end to plans to establish a “Coltsville National Historical Park Advisory Commission.” It would oversee operations of the park and consist of 12 members picked by Hartford’s mayor, the governor and members of Connecticut’s congressional delegation, including Rep. John Larson, D-1st District, sponsor of the Coltsville National Park bill.

The Interior Department wants the National Park Service to run the park instead.

The famous Colt blue onion dome.

The famous Colt blue onion dome.

Efforts to turn  the 260-acre site on the bank of the Connecticut River into a national park to honor Sam Colt and his manufacturing practices have been going on for years, since the site was  designated as a National Historic Landmark in 2008. But legislation that would prod the Interior Department to give the site national park designation has never been approved by both chambers of Congress.

On Friday, the Congressional Budget Office determined how much the park would cost U.S. taxpayers, a step that’s usually taken before a floor vote on a piece of legislation.

The CBO determined that establishing the park would cost $9 million over a five-year period.

“Those amounts would be used to restore and develop sites, complete a management plan for the park unit, and begin operations,” the CBO report said.

Last month, the House Natural Resources Committee voted unanimously to approve Larson’s bill. But not before Rep. Rob Bishop, R-Utah, made key changes in the legislation that were sought by the Interior Department’s National Park Service.

As chairman of the Natural Resources Committee panel, which has jurisdiction over the national parks, Bishop won approval of the changes during a committee meeting on the bill.

Besides eliminating the commission, the bill now requires an  evaluation of the financial stability of the owners and investors in the park before it can be built, another change sought by the Obama administration.

A major Coltsville developer is Colt Gateway. A big investor is Chevron, an energy company that invests in Coltsville because its historic landmark designation makes the area eligible for special tax breaks.

Lawrence Dooley of Colt Gateway has said the National Park Service’s concerns about the financial health stem from the troubles of a previous developer — not his company.

Dooley said he’s not surprised the bill has been amended.

“I’m happy to show them anything they want to see,” Dooley said.

Larson said “I am pleased to see this bill moving forward.”

“This has been a good, bipartisan effort alongside Chairman Bishop and (House Resources Committee Chairman “Doc” Hastings,” Larson said. “I will be working closely with Senators Blumenthal and Murphy as we continue our efforts to preserve the history that is Coltsville and bring the economic benefits of this designation to Hartford.”

The site for the park is a complex of 19th century factories, the residence of Samuel and Elizabeth Colt called Armsmear, the Church of the Good Shepherd and neighborhood gardens.

Most of the area is in private hands. Dozens of apartments have been built in the former Colt factories.

But Larson’s legislation calls for the blue-domed East Armory, now Colt Gateway, to donate at least 10,000 square feet for a museum. It also promises the National Park Service a “sufficient amount of land” to help create a national park.

Bishop amended the bill to prohibit the federal, local or state government to seize property to create the park or establish a “buffer zone” around it.

He also changed the bill to bar the use of federal funds to acquire objects that would be displayed in the Coltsville museum.

But Bishop added language that would make it easier for the Connecticut State Library, Wadsworth Atheneum, the Colt Trust, or other public entities to acquire and donate Colt-related artifacts “for routine display in the East Armory or within other areas of the park to enhance the visitor experience.”

Mallory Micetich, press secretary of the Natural Resources Committee, said Bishop “is a big supporter” of the Coltsville bill.

House Majority Leader Eric Cantor, R-Va., will now determine whether the bill gets a vote in the House.

Sen. Richard Blumenthal, D-Conn., is the sponsor of a Coltsville bill in the Senate. But no action has been taken to move the Senate legislation forward, other than a hearing on the bill last year.

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