Do you know what makes a national park a national park? Or what makes a historic park historic?
MetroHartford Alliance Content Manager Nan Price spoke with Kelly Fellner, Superintendent of Springfield Armory National Historic Site and Coltsville National Historical Park, and Andrew Long, Management Assistant at National Park Service for Springfield Armory National Historic Site and Coltsville National Historical Park to learn more about one of Hartford’s treasures.
NAN PRICE: Give us some context, how did Coltsville National Historical Park come to be?
KELLY FELLNER: The park came to be through the hard work of those who are interested in the history of Hartford and the historic preservation of the buildings here that are part of the city skyline. That became the legislation that first set up Coltsville National Historical Park in 2014. That’s where it started, through legislation and an acknowledgment based on local citizens and historians about the importance of this place as part of the national story.
NAN PRICE: What is the process like for Coltsville to officially become a national park?
ANDREW LONG: If you think about it in startup terms, we’ve launched through our authorization, but we haven’t gone to market yet. That’s when we’re established. I feel like I’m the COO and Kelly is the CEO of this startup, so we’re involved in all aspects.
For Coltsville to be an official park, there are three big pieces. The first part involved getting an agreement in place with the city about how we’re going to co-manage the parts of the park owned by the city. Next, we put a signed agreement in place with the landowner and the developer designating what part of the property they’re going to donate to us and then how we’re going to work together. The last piece involves the two buildings in the Colt manufacturing complex the developer has agreed to donate to us. We’re in that donation process right now, and it’s lasting a few years because the complexity of the property. But, once we own those buildings, we’ll officially meet the legislative requirements for establishment.
NAN: How do urban parks like Coltsville contribute to community and the local economy?
KELLY: In 2016, when we were celebrating the Centennial for the park service, we did a comprehensive study to look at parks’ economic benefit to communities. Whether a park is in a rural or an urban area, there are direct benefits because we’re basically in the tourism business. We’re heritage tourism.
About $20 billion in visitor spending across the nation benefits communities and business owners and helps the local economy. Some of the bigger national parks in the country are, of course, more well known. But, of the 419 units of the national park service, only 59 of them hold that label as a national park. The rest of them are lakeshores, seashores, beaches, historic sites, battlefields, and monuments like the Statue of Liberty.
Coming out of the Centennial year, we wanted to help people understand that you can have a national park in your community in Hartford. You don’t have to travel to Cape Cod or Acadia to have a national park experience. What’s a little more difficult is for us to work with communities to define what is that national park experience.
NAN: How are you creating the visitor experience?
ANDREW: Last year we got a contract with Davis Brody Bond architectural firm to develop our vision and work on some redevelopment projects. Once we own the two buildings, they’re going to get developed into some type of museum or visitor center. We did a lot of surveying of our community partners, local community members, historians, academics, and various Hartford institutions to find out what the buildings should be used for. Davis Brody Bond combined the survey results and gave us some conceptual plans for what the space might be and some cost estimates for building out a visitor center.
Many historic artifacts from the Colt story are already housed in well-known institutions in Hartford, including the Wadsworth Atheneum Museum of Art, the Connecticut Historical Society, and the Museum of Connecticut History, which has the Colt Collection of firearms. We don’t intend to move any of these artifacts, because it drives visitors and economic contributions to all these other great cultural institutions. We don’t want to take that away from that. There’s already a lot of cool stuff going on and the tide will raise all the ships. We’re looking at how we’re can tie all these stories together and build a network of cultural history.
It’s important to note that we are aware of sensitivities and controversies around the firearms history of Connecticut with regard to cultural issues and especially the tragic history of gun violence in Connecticut. The park service is not going to shy away from it, because parks deal with all aspects of U.S. natural and cultural history. But we also don’t take a political stance and we really see the park as a place to facilitate some of those difficult conversations, like a number of different parks service sites do across the country.
NAN: What’s next for Coltsville National Historical Park?
ANDREW: The important thing to communicate is that starting a national park from scratch isn’t something that’s done overnight. The park service is taking this very seriously and we want to make sure we do it right the first time. Mistakes are fairly expensive in the government and it’s taxpayer money we’re spending. So, this is going to take some time. Also, this is going to be a team effort. We want the community to be involved in this process. It’s all about collaboration.