Christine Stuart photo

There remain challenges, but elected officials seemed confident Saturday that the old Colt Building which put Hartford on the map in the 19th century will do it again in the 21st century.

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“There is no finer spot in the state of Connecticut to be a national park than this temple to the industrial revolution,” Gov. Dannel P. Malloy said Saturday following a tour of the east armory. “It is Connecticut’s contribution. It is how the west was won.”

Malloy, U.S. Rep. John Larson, U.S. Senator Richard Blumenthal, and Hartford Mayor Pedro Segarra were all eager to show off the building to U.S. Department of the Interior Secretary Ken Salazar, who is supporting their efforts to turn the complex into a national park.

The project has limped along over the years making some progress most notably under its third developer, Larry Dooley, who was able to spur the first major construction project the building has seen in five years when he broke ground a year ago on the satellite campus of the Greater Hartford Academy of the Arts magnet school.

But it wasn’t the new development or renovated residential spaces officials were showing off Saturday, it was the older, untouched part of the east armory where the Colt .45’s were once manufactured.

The part where Malloy envisions constructing a 10,000 square foot museum that will act to attract 60,000 to 100,000 tourists a year.

“Right here the place of Samuel and Elizabeth Colt is a place where people will come from around the United States, from around the world to see this great place,” Salazar said. “As Secretary of the Interior I look very much forward to working with the governor and with your Congressional delegation to make this national site, a national park.”

Salazar, whose office recently commissioned a study on the economic impact of national parks, said “This is a job creator because this is such a magnet.”

He said the study found that a broader, nationwide tourism effort could contribute to the creation of 2.1 to 3.3 million jobs in tourism and leisure in the next decade.

Christine Stuart photo

Receiving national park status also furthers Malloy’s desire to expand and focus on historical tourism.

“It tells the story on many different layers and levels of our industrial past and the contribution of our great citizens, as well as the history of Hartford itself as one of the leaders in the abolition movement, as one of the leaders in the industrial revolution, as one of the cultural leaders in this country, in this world,” Malloy said.

“Bringing 60,000 to 100,000 people a year to this site to enjoy that history and to understand Connecticut and Hartford’s contribution to the United States and the world is a very important project and why I’ve already pledged my support,” Malloy said.

Larson said the fiscal challenges of getting Congress to approve legislation designating the site as a national park are real, but “they pale in comparison to the economic benefit.”

He said the study Salazar’s office commissioned shows there’s a four to one payback in the economy for this type of investment.

“For a modest amount of money, miniscule by federal standards, we can move an important project forward that will bring a community together,” Larson said. “This isn’t an issue of Democrat and Republican and I believe we’re going to be able to overcome even the current environment that we’re in in Washington D.C.”

He said he expects Congress to approve the legislation before it adjourns its term.

“With this particular site there is already so much work that has gone into it including a study that has concluded that with $6.5 million of capital investment and $300,000 a year you could operate this as a national park,“ Salazar said. “So from my point of view it’s a great candidate for inclusion in the national park system. We will work hard to make it happen.”

Christine Stuart photo

On Sept. 10 the National Park Service inaugurated Flight 93 in Pennsylvania, a project that cost $82 million. A few weeks before that it opened the Martin Luther King Jr. Memorial on the National Mall which was a $110 million undertaking.

“Even in these fiscal times they’re doable,” Salazar said. “And I think what’s important for us to do, what your leaders in Connecticut have done, is to remind everybody that at the end of the day this is about job creation and you get huge economic returns whenever you create a national park.”

This will be the second time Connecticut’s Congressional delegation has sought support to turn the building into a national park.

“We are at a critical juncture,“ Blumenthal said. “We are so close we can taste it.”

He said the merits of the project are so powerful, “that we should be able to carry the ball across the goal line this session.”

The fiscal pressures are there but Blumenthal said the delegation has the secretary’s support which is absolutely crucial.

Malloy who has been studying the issue after meeting with Larson more than a year ago said he’s anxious to receive the designation. As he looked out over van dyke street on the east side of the complex he looked at concrete wall separating the building from I-91 and envisions putting us a mural of what the Connecticut River looked like back during Colt’s lifetime.

He also talk about how the museum would attract a gun enthusiasts from around the nation.

“We have this great gun collection, which I’ve seen a portion of, but it’s not properly demonstrated and I think that this would be literally a Mecca, literally a Mecca for gun enthusiasts, gun collectors, history buffs,” Malloy said.