The concept for a Thames River Heritage Park to celebrate the rich and continuous engagement between Groton, New London and the Thames River has been around for more than 50 years. As early as the 1960’s, planners at the Southeastern Connecticut Regional Planning Agency saw the potential in such a park to highlight the unique culture of the area, encourage heritage tourism, and produce economic development in the region.
In 1987, Connecticut put in place legislation to establish a statewide heritage park system, identifying the Thames Estuary as the most promising area in the state to test the concept, designating it as a model state heritage park site. In the ensuing 20+ years, with more than $4 million in state funds invested in the park project, much was accomplished, but full implementation was not achieved. By 2010 the effort faded away.
Today, much of the original rationale for developing the park remains compelling, and major impediments to completion have disappeared. In fact, with the scheduled arrival of the National Coast Guard Museum to downtown New London in 2018 projected to bring as many as 500,000 visitors per year to the Thames region, now is a perfect time to reactivate and complete the park project.
In 2012, the Avery-Copp House hired a consultant to increase visitation to the house and to help the organization have a greater impact on the region. The consultant researched the prospects for re-activating the park, then, with the approval of the Avery-Copp House Board of Directors, brought in the Yale Urban Design Workshop to determine if completing the Heritage Park was a way to accomplish these objectives.
Yale conducted a cultural assessment of the area and interviewed key stakeholders and those who had been involved in the earlier effort to develop the park. Ultimately, Yale concluded that the park would not only help the Avery-Copp House meet its objectives, but it could become the catalyst that would spur economic growth throughout the region.
Garnering Public Support
While Yale worked on its report, the Heritage Park Steering Committee, an ad hoc committee of the Avery-Copp House Board of Directors, with members representing both sides of the river, sought the support of area stakeholders. Currently 29 letters of endorsement have been submitted by a wide range of organizations, including the municipalities and heritage sites in the estuary, regional and state maritime and economic development commissions and agencies, and educational institutions. The Southeastern CT legislative delegation has endorsed the effort. Senator Andrew Maynard stepped forward early on to lead the charge.
The Water Taxi Demonstration
During the first two weekends of September, 2014, the Steering Committee coordinated a water taxi demonstration to test the viability of establishing a ferry service across the Thames River. The committee raised funds, worked with the SE CT Council of Governments to create a service agreement with Cross Sound Ferry to operate the taxi, placed advertisements, coordinated signage, secured permission from the required agencies, secured a viable vessel from Mystic Seaport and filled 60 shifts of volunteers.
- Residents visited sites that they had never visited before.
- Visitors were drawn from outside the area to ride the water taxi and explore the area.
- Businesses on both sides of the river experienced sales increases. Residents of Groton crossed the river to New London to try new restaurants, and New London residents crossed the river to patronize Paul’s Pasta and Ralph’s Coffee Shop.
- The Avery-Copp House had the highest attendance in its history, 400 people, at an event it held during the second weekend of water taxi service. On the other hand, paid admission to Fort Trumbull was 98 the first weekend and 106 the second, not a noticeable increase from the prior few weekends, according to Park Supervisor Jon Lincoln, but the number of visitors to the grounds appeared to be higher than usual.
- People who do not own a boat were able to get out on the water and gain a new perspective of the region – its history and geography.
- An on-line survey following the demonstration project indicated that many passengers would use the service to get to Union Station, commute to work, shop, dine or attend classes.
- The demonstration indicates that such a shuttle service should be considered for permanent status to stimulate economic development and activity and support existing heritage tourism in the region. Read the full report on the water taxi and passenger survey results here.
Presentation of the Yale plan
On April 1, 2015, The Yale Urban Design Workshop presented its final report to a capacity crowd at the City of Groton Municipal Building.
Heritage Park Transition Plan
After the Yale presentation, the Steering Committee began Phase I of the implementation process outlined in the Yale report. Part of this work involves the creation of a new nonprofit that will work in partnership with the CT Department of Energy and Environmental Protection, the municipalities and the SE CT Council of Governments to complete and manage the park. The Transition Subcommittee is setting up a Transition Team to lay the foundation for the nonprofit. Selection of the Team will be completed in July.
The subcommittee also worked with the CT DEEP to create a Memorandum of Intent (MOI) that will form the basis of the relationship between the state agency and the new nonprofit and local authorities. A draft was submitted to the DEEP June 2 and the amended MOI from the DEEP was reviewed and approved by the committee June 23. Commissioner Klee signed the document at the end of June and it is now circulating among the other signatories, which are the City and Town of Groton, New London and the SE CT Council of Governments.
The Steering Committee also created a Water Taxi Subcommittee to get the ferry operational as quickly as possible. The subcommittee solicited bids for service through an RFP process administered by the SE CT Council of Governments, but no viable bids were received. Currently the subcommittee is seeking funds and is in contact with several potential service operators. Through the subcommittee’s efforts, the City and Town of Groton have earmarked funds for the water taxi for this summer, and New London’s mayor has requested the funds in the FY2016 budget.