Coltsville faces hurdles before official national park status

The Coltsville Historic District used to be known as Armsmear, home of Samuel and Elizabeth Colt.

National Historic Register

The Coltsville National Historical Park boundaries include Armsmear, home of Samuel and Elizabeth Colt.

Washington – In a few days, when President Obama signs enabling legislation, will Hartford's Coltsville neighborhood be a national park?

Not yet.

There are several conditions included in the legislation creating the Coltsville National Historical Park that will take some time to meet before the site that includes the home and factories of Elizabeth and Sam Colt can be honored with that designation.

And it’s likely to take years more before Coltsville bustles with visitors who flock to see the old factories and a new museum in the East Armory, a vision promoted by Coltsville supporters who say the park will be an economic boon to the city and the state.

After President Obama signs into law the massive defense bill that contains language for the Coltsville park — a signing that is expected in the next few days —  the National Park Service will begin to work with park supporters to meet the conditions that will designate Coltsville as a national historical park.

“It’s all contingent on land acquisition,” said National Park Service spokesman Jeffry Olson.

Aimed at giving the National Park Service something to manage in an area that’s largely in private hands now, one condition in the bill is the donation of “sufficient land or an interest in land within the boundary of the park to constitute a manageable unit.”

The Coltsville park boundaries will include the complex of 19th century factories; the Colt residence, called Armsmear; the Church of the Good Shepherd; Hartford's Colt Park; the Potsdam cottages; and the James Colt House.

The second condition is that the owners of the East Armory, now a partnership between Chevron Oil and CG Management, enter into an agreement with the Secretary of the Interior to donate at the very least an additional 10,000 square feet in the blue-domed East Armory to include offices for park administration and visitor services.

The final condition is that the secretary of interior enter into a written agreement with the owners of the rest of the Coltsville complex that establishes they will manage their properties in a way that’s consistent with the area’s national park status.

Only after these conditions are met will the Interior Department, which overseas the National Park Service, officially designate Coltsville as a national park.

“Once the bill is signed into law, regional National Park Service leadership will work to determine the best path towards fulfilling the three steps required in the Coltsville National Historical Park Act so the secretary of the interior can designate Coltsville a unit of the National Park system,” said Edmund Skowroneck, spokesman for Rep. John Larson, D-1st District, sponsor of the Coltsville legislation.

Larry Dooley, managing partner of CG Management, the developer that is turning the old Coltsville factories and armories into a complex of apartments, shops and commercial real estate, said he does not know how the 10,000 square feet of space in the East Armory will be transferred to the federal government.

The East Armory, and at least 10 other buildings are jointly owned by CG Management and Chevron, which invested in Coltsville because it was designated a national heritage area in 2008. The designation gives the oil company a tax break.

“I don’t believe the details of how this occurs have been hammered out,” Dooley said.

He said he just put renovation of the East Armory “out to bid” with the help of a $5 million grant from the Connecticut Department of Economic and Community Development.

Because of the impending renovation, Dooley said, the timing of Congress’ approval of the Coltsville legislation in the defense bill “was beautiful, but accidental.”

But now comes the tough part.

“Connecting the pieces (of the park) will not be an easy task,” Dooley said.

Olson said the creation of the park will take time. "The bottom line is things happen slowly," he said. "National parks do not spring up overnight.”

 A lone ranger

Advocates have been for years attempting to turn the 260-acre site near the Connecticut River into a national park memorializing the iconic Colt Armory complex as one of the cradles of the American industrial revolution. But there is no blueprint for the park.

The enabling legislation calls for the formation of a commission whose members will be selected by the governor, Hartford’s mayor, the U.S. congressman representing the 1st District, the state’s two U.S. senators and the leaders of the Connecticut General Assembly. That “advisory commission” will help the National Park Service come up with a management plan for the park, the first step toward turning the Coltsville complex into national historical park.

Inspiration may come from Lowell, Mass.

Larson said he developed the idea for Coltsville park after he visited Lowell National Historical Park in 2002. That Massachusetts site also pays homage to the industrial revolution, in this case the town’s famed water-powered textile mills that helped speed the industrialization of the nation.

Peter Aucella, assistant superintendent for development at the Lowell National Historical Park, said the process of turning the city’s 19th Century textile mills into a showplace of the industrial age has taken 36 years and is still ongoing. The properties were “in significant disrepair,” either sitting empty or housing small manufacturing companies or other businesses, he said.

Congress approved legislation creating Lowell’s park in 1978. A few months later former Rep. Paul Tsongas, D-Mass., who represented the town, pressed the National Park Service to send a ranger.

“He basically operated out of a phone booth. He had no office, and just walked around the town,” Aucella said.

Now there are 62 full-time National Park Service employees who run a visitors center, museum, trolley, boat rides, performance center and other aspect of the park. The old mills have been restored so they look as they did in Lowell’s industrial heyday and so have other buildings, including a former boarding house for female workers.

Like Coltsville, Lowell’s factories and historic buildings are largely privately owned and house residents and businesses.

The University of Massachusetts at Lowell is also part of the park. But the national park was given about 19 acres and 40-year leases on several facilities on which the agency pays minimal rent. The park service will own the sites when the leases run out.

Aucella said it took until 1982, five years after designation, to establish a visitors center that would also serve as an office for the park’s rangers.

“And in order to open the visitors center, people had to hustle,” he said.

The first trolley ran down the town’s old railroad tracks in 1983. Construction of the museum took 13 years, opening in 1991.

The town also established a historic preservation area around the 140-acre park that "serves as a buffer area," Aucella said.

He said the National Park Service, which has expressed concerns about Coltsville, initially opposed creation of the Lowell National Historical Park.

“The official take is, ‘We don’t do industrial parks’,” Aucella said.

But now there are several besides the one in Lowell, including the Springfield Armory National Historic Site, which prides itself as the nation’s first armory, and the New Bedford Whaling National Historical Park, both in Massachusetts.

While turning a former industrial site into a national park may be more common now, the National Park Service budget is stretched thin to manage a growing number of historic places.

Olson of the National Park Service said the agency currently has $11.3 billion worth of deferred maintenance.

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