In the early years of the past decade, the four state museums were constantly threatened with closure or cutback. These vitally important historic and cultural sites — the Prudence Crandall Museum in Canterbury, the Henry Whitfield Museum in Guilford, the Eric Sloane Museum in Kent and Old New-Gate Prison & Copper Mine in East Granby — were on the block for budgetary reasons.
No more. Three of the museums will open for the season next month and Old New-Gate will reopen next year, when a complicated restoration project that includes stabilizing the 1819 addition to the guardhouse, which was built with no foundation on mine tailings that are shifting underneath it, is completed.
These great assets — and many others — have been aided by one of the most farsighted laws passed by the General Assembly in living memory, the Community Investment Act. It is essential that this law be allowed to keep doing what it's been doing.
That law, passed in 2005 and championed by Senate President Pro Tem Donald E. Williams Jr., created a fund from real estate recording fees that supports farmland preservation, open space acquisition, affordable housing and historic preservation.
By 2011, the law had produced $47 million in grants for these traditionally underfunded categories. The grants created more than 2,000 jobs, leveraged $82 million in matching funds and helped acquire development rights to almost 300 farms. The act has supported projects in nearly every town in the state.
What could possibly go wrong?
No repository of money is safe, including the poor box near the church door, when the legislature is trying to fill holes in the budget. The Community Investment Act suffered a partial raid four years ago, but Sen. Williams has been able to fend off other poaching efforts. Alas, Mr. Williams is leaving office after this term. Who becomes the law's champion?
Hopefully every legislator who is interested in the state's quality of life. The law provides money for activities that are vitally important but have traditionally been underfunded. For example, except for tax credits, virtually all the historic preservation activity in the state is funded by the act. The law has helped stop the pattern of sprawl development that threatens to turn the traditional Connecticut landscape into Anywhere, USA. Many talk of smart growth; the Community Investment Act puts money into it.
The law also has what has turns out to be an effective structure — it funds categories rather than earmarks. This encourages competition for funds based on the quality of the project. The fund "had not died the death of a thousand earmarks," Sen. Williams said.
There are a number of ways to approach economic development. For example, the state gives grants and tax credits to particular companies, to encourage them to move or stay here. So do other states. Another approach is to make Connecticut a place where people want to be.
The Community Investment Act takes that tack, protecting history, landscapes, and the mix of nature and settlement that make Connecticut distinctive and interesting. In a similar vein, the state Department of Economic and Community Development is engaged in a multiyear project studying "place-making," the various factors — innovation, historic preservation, arts, architecture and others — that make memorable places.
This work should help the state create funding priorities; the Community Investment Act will help with the money.
So enjoy the state museums and other sites. The Henry Whitfield House, the oldest house in the state, celebrates its 375th anniversary this year. And if you want more information on state heroine Prudence Crandall, fear not. Sen. Williams, who walks the walk on Connecticut history, has a book coming out in June, "Prudence Crandall's Legacy," on the courageous 19th-century civil rights figure.