It was a group effort over the last two-and-a-half years to raise the money needed to buy and preserve the last 45 acres of open space along the Mystic River, as demonstrated by the grand opening on Thursday, Sept. 4 of the Coogan Farm Nature and Heritage Center.
In attendance were federal and state officials, the leaders of the Denison Pequotsepos Nature Center and the Trust for Public Land, volunteers who spearheaded the Campaign to Save Coogan Farm and many of the individual donors. A total of about 200 people attended.
The speakers were:
- Page Owen, president, DPNC Board of Trustees
- Maggie Jones, executive director, DPNC
- Alicia Sullivan, CT director, Trust for Public Land
- Harry White, co-chair, Campaign to Save Coogan Farm fundraising
- US Sen. Richard Blumenthal
- US Rep. Joe Courtney
- Lt. Gov. Nancy Wyman
- Jessie Stratton, director of policy, CT DEEP
- State Rep. Diana Urban
Thanks to the Mystic Garland Dancers for their wonderful leading of the procession from the speakers tent to the ribbon for the actual cutting.
Rep. Courtney presented the Nature Center with a proclamation and an American flag that was flown over the US Capitol in honor of Coogan Farm “as an invaluable partner in the conservation of Mystic’s watersheds and wildlife habitats for future generations.”
Maggie Jones received a standing ovation from the audience at the start or her remarks, and took note of the incredible changes that have taken place at Coogan Farm in the year since the Nature Center closed on the deal.
“A year ago I looked down into this foundation and Bertha and Gertrude were looking back up at me,” she said in reference to the last two Coogan cows that lived on the farm.
“I am so thrilled with the opportunities that are before us,” Jones said. “Coogan Farm gives us the incredible opportunity to broaden the impact of what the Nature Center does for future generations. This legacy will continue on for centuries.”
In 2012, the Nature Center began the effort to preserve the farm at 162 Greenmanville Ave., after the property was put up for sale. The center partnered with the Trust for Public Land to raise $3.5 million to purchase 34 acres from the Coogan family. Meanwhile, the Coogan family agreed to donate another 11 acres to the center.
“This is precious land on the dense coastline of Connecticut,” said Alicia Sullivan, CT director of the Trust for Public Land. Now this land, the animals and the birds, will remain part of the fabric of the community forever. We were honored to partner on this project as it fits every part of our mission as a national organization.”
The Campaign to Save Coogan Farm raised $4.1 million and bought the land in September, 2013, thanks to contributions from 760 individuals and businesses and grants from the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and the state Department of Energy and Environmental Protection. The state of Connecticut provided $500,000 and another $600,000 came from the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.
US Sen. Blumenthal said that the success of the Coogan campaign proved “there is no stopping a group of citizens who are determined to do the right thing. …Today is a really big deal. It is a wondrous, magical moment. We are here to celebrate the saving of the physical space, but also of a tradition, a legacy, for all time.”
Rep. Courtney noted that the federal grant the Campaign received is not an easy piece of funding to get, and part of the application process includes demonstrating community support. “For Coogan Farm to clear that bar is an extraordinary statement of its connection to the community.”
Lt. Gov. Wyman was very impressed with the speaker’s podium, which was made by DPNC trustee Mike Charnetski from foraged branches. “This is the best podium I have ever stood at,” she said. In addition, she said the state was happy to have been able to provide funding to the Campaign in order to preserve Coogan Farm “not just for my grandchildren, who are already here, but for my grandchildren’s grandchildren.”
In addition to the recreational and educational opportunities the Center will provide the region, a special collaboration developed among the Nature Center, the Robert G. Youngs Family Foundation, and the United Way of Southeastern CT and its Gemma E. Moran United Way Labor Food Center.
In February 2014, the three organizations announced the creation of the 2-acre Giving Garden, funded by the Robert G. Youngs Family Foundation. The Giving Garden, with the work of nearly 300 volunteers in its support, is now producing on a weekly basis fresh produce for hungry families in New London County. Thanks to a United Way Day of Action that involved about 100 Mohegan Sun employees, four garden plots are filled with tomatoes, kale, turnips, radishes and more, all brought to families via Food Center mobile pantries.
Founding garden manager Ian Cooke’s concepts and designs for the Giving Garden created the early enthusiasm and energy for the project and will continue to benefit the garden for years to come.
Nothing that has happened at Coogan Farm in the year since the Denison Pequotsepos Nature Center took ownership could have happened without the thousands of hours put in by Nature Center staff, its Board of Directors, and by a legion of volunteers driving the Campaign to Save Coogan Farm. Miles of stone walls have been brought out from under decades of overgrowth. The barn foundation that dates back to the 1700s was cleared, rebuilt where needed, and the floor leveled. The Paddock and the Stillman foundation were cleared, both by Eagle Scouts doing their projects. Trails have been mowed and paths delineated. Work continues to be done every day to improve access to the property. The next chapter of Coogan Farm has only just begun.