Discovering Amistad charts new course for schooner
The Day | December 31, 2015
By Joe Wojtas
The chairman of Discovering Amistad, the new nonprofit organization that owns the Amistad, said his organization is ready to relaunch the repaired schooner this spring with a revised mission and a new strategy for success.
Unlike Amistad America, the financially troubled organization that lost the ship through receivership after sailing it to far-flung ports in Africa, the Caribbean and Bermuda, Discovering Amistad plans to sail almost exclusively along the Connecticut coastline while expanding on its historic story into timely subjects such as social justice and race relations.
“We want to get it into as many areas of the state as possible because we have to let people know the ship is back,” said chairman Len Miller of Essex, a retired CPA who founded the 25-year-old SoundWaters marine education program in Stamford. “We have to build up the credibility of this ship that unfortunately was lost.”
Plenty of ill will surrounds the ship as the state continued to fund Amistad America even after it fell deeper and deeper into debt while providing little documentation about how it was spending state funding.
The state finally audited Amistad America and took control of the ship in August 2014 after state Rep. Diana Urban, D-North Stonington, continued to raise questions about how the organization had spent $9 million in state funding. When the ship was sold by the court-appointed receiver this fall to Discovering Amistad for $315,000, Amistad America owed more than $2 million to a long list of small businesses, organizations, banks, individuals and other creditors who were never paid back.
“Stories like this don’t help nonprofits in general,” Miller said. “We have to explain we’re not the previous organization. We’re a new group with a great board with a lot of goals we want to accomplish.”
The 12-member board includes New London Superintendent of Schools Manny Rivera, Connecticut Supreme Court Justice Richard Robinson, Assistant U.S. Attorney Ndidi Moses, and retired IBM executive Robert King.
Miller said Discovering Amistad will offer educational programs to children and adults throughout the school year as well as offer summer programs. He said it is working with professionals such as those at Eastern Connecticut State University to develop its programming.
“We don’t just want to be a dockside exhibit. A ship like this should be sailed,” he said. “We want it to reach kids and adults all along our coast.”
The state Department of Community and Economic Development, which is providing $342,000 a year in state funding for the ship, is requiring it to be in the state for at least six months each year. But Miller said it will be here much more than that.
“The ship is not going anywhere. There is too much interest right here,” he said. “You will see us in Connecticut. That’s where the ship will be.”
Amistad America came under fire for taking costly overseas voyages, in which it was sometimes damaged and exposed to storms.
Miller said the ship will spend its winters at Mystic Seaport, where it was built in 2000, and then spend the rest of the year mostly in the deepwater ports of New London, New Haven and Bridgeport, which can accommodate its 10½-foot draft. He said Discovering Amistad will likely have its office in New Haven because of its central location.
The ship is undergoing repairs at the Seaport. That work is possible because the State Bond Commission approved a $762,000 grant to the organization so it could buy the ship for $315,000 and make repairs.
“One of the things about the ship is that it was so well built. Otherwise, the work we have to do could have been a lot worse,” Miller said. “Quentin Snediker (the director of the Seaport shipyard) and his folks did a great job.”
Miller added that while “the previous organization did not maintain the ship as well as it should have,” the vessel can be repaired. He said plans are to have the work done and obtain Coast Guard certification in late April or early May so the ship can head out to Connecticut ports for the summer.
Miller said it is critical that the ship looks and operates perfectly when it leaves the Seaport in order for people “to give us a second look.” He stressed the ship will not sail until that time.
Asked about funding the future operation of the ship, Miller said he expects his organization to be able to raise the money it needs.
He said Amistad America’s problem was not that it could not raise money but that it spent more than it had and it didn’t develop viable revenue-producing programs
“We’re creating quality educational programs. That will make fundraising for us significantly easier. Donors will be attracted to it,” he said. “And if you’re trying to attract money from Connecticut corporations, they want to see you around and your programs benefiting Connecticut kids. I expect a strong philanthropic response to our program.”
SoundWaters, which is based in Stamford, provides educational programs about the environment of Long Island Sound to more than 27,000 students in Connecticut and New York each year while the schooner SoundWaters conducts 250 educational sails annually. The organization was founded 25 years ago by Miller with a mission to protect the Sound through education and action, according to its website.