HARTFORD, Conn. -- When the Amistad schooner sails into New London this week, it will be returning to its home state for the first time in more than a year amid questions about its owner's finances and new business partnerships.
A symbol of the fight against slavery, the Amistad is a state-funded replica of a ship that was taken over by African captives who were being brought to Cuba in 1839. They landed on Long Island but were captured and jailed in New Haven. With help from abolitionists, they won their freedom in a landmark case that started in Connecticut and ended in the U.S. Supreme Court.
The new schooner's mission since it was built in Mystic in 2000 has been to educate the public about the original Amistad and the plight of those on board. It has sailed up and down the East Coast, to Cuba and as far as western Africa telling its namesake's story, with the help of millions of dollars in funding from the state of Connecticut.
After several years of success, the Amistad's owner, Amistad America Inc., fell into hard financial times, including a stretch from 2010 to 2012 when the ship had to be left in Mystic and was inactive because there wasn't enough money for repairs. For the past year, it's been at a shipyard in Portland, Maine, undergoing maintenance.
Amistad America officials say they have rescued the 129-foot Baltimore clipper and its mission from the brink of financial ruin and are returning to Connecticut with a refurbished ship, new business partnerships and a plan to educate the public.
"We've all worked hard, sometimes against pretty formidable odds," said Greg Belanger, former executive director of Amistad America. "But we kept saying we're not going to give up the ship. It's too important."
Connecticut officials, however, have questions about the Amistad's past and future.
State auditors are reviewing the Department of Economic and Community Development's funding of Amistad America. Leaders of the legislature's Appropriations Committee are planning to meet with DECD and Amistad America officials to discuss improving reporting of the ship's operations to the state. And the state attorney general's office is monitoring Amistad America to make sure it meets state and federal reporting requirements.
State officials became concerned about the Amistad this year after its financial problems were reported by The Day of New London, said state Rep. Diana Urban, D-North Stonington. Among the troubles was Amistad America losing its tax-exempt status for failing to file required financial forms with the Internal Revenue Service for the past three years. Officials also were concerned that the ship was docked in Maine and being managed by a Maine-based sailing school.
To Urban, it seemed like the ship had abandoned its home state after taking more than $8 million from its taxpayers, including money for the vessel's construction, a new pier in New Haven and annual grants of more than $350,000 for operations.
But that characterization turned out not to be true, Urban said this week after learning more about the Amistad's struggles.
"It's twofold for me," Urban said. "It's the heritage of the Amistad and what it means to our country, and it's the taxpayers' money. The Amistad is by statute the flagship of the state of Connecticut."
Although Amistad America failed to file the IRS forms, it never stopped filing required financial reports with the state every year and there's no evidence of impropriety, said Christopher "Kip" Bergstrom, deputy commissioner of the economic development department.
"They got into a situation of financial stress and have been trying to work their way out of it ever since," Bergstrom said. "They had a perfect storm of problems which they have now managed to overcome and now they're spreading their wings."
Last November, Amistad America partnered with the sailing school, Ocean Classroom Foundation of Damariscotta, Maine. The foundation runs and maintains several other schooners, and Belanger said that has helped reduce maintenance costs and created other savings.
Amistad America and Ocean Classroom have a contract through July 2014 that calls for Amistad America to pay for capital improvements, and the two organizations to split revenue.
Amistad America also recently announced an educational partnership with Love146, a New Haven nonprofit group working to prevent child sex trafficking and exploitation. The two groups will share their messages aboard the Amistad, but there won't be any revenue sharing.
Urban said she has concerns about the story of the Amistad being diluted by Love146's message and mingling lessons of the fight against slavery with the evils of sex trafficking.
But Belanger said the messages complement each other. He said sex trafficking is modern-day slavery, and Love146 will help draw more people to the Amistad with a current issue.
Belanger recently left Amistad America to lead Ocean Classroom. This week, Hanifa Washington, a crew member of the Amistad, was announced as Amistad America's new executive director.
Amistad America is also working to regain its tax-exempt status from the IRS, Belanger said.
In the fall, the Amistad will be used as a pirate ship in the filming of a TV miniseries in the Caribbean that will bring in $62,000 a month over four to five months, Belanger said. The Amistad's name won't be visible, he said.
Belanger said the Amistad is returning to Connecticut ready to resume its mission with renewed vigor.
"I have my crew ready to go," he said. "The boat is the best she's looked in six years. That doesn't mean we solved all of our problems. But we are operating. I can point to other ships that aren't operating."