A recent funding decision could mean rough water for a nonprofit group spearheading a campaign to relocate the USS Battleship New Jersey from its current home in Camden to Jersey City.
Earlier this month, the Delaware River Port Authority extended a $900,000 loan guarantee, which will prevent the Battleship – which now operates as a museum – from defaulting on a loan from TD Bank. The decision allows the entity that runs the museum in Camden and maintains the ship to have another three years to strengthen their operations and become financially viable. Momentum that had been building to relocate the Battleship New Jersey to Jersey City could be lost in that three-year period, although those who support relocation say they have no plans to abandon ship.
But not everyone thinks the Camden location is now in the clear.
“I’m not thinking about Sam Pesin right now.” – Christopher von Zwehl
Most decorated ship
One of the four Iowa class ships that have been taken out of active duty, the Battleship USS New Jersey served in World War II, the Korean conflict, Vietnam, the Persian Gulf during Operation Desert Storm, and the 1990 Operation Desert Shield. The Battleship New Jersey is the most decorated ship in U.S. Navy history.
When the Navy decommissioned the Battleship New Jersey for the last time in 1991, the vessel sat for years in Bremerton, Wash., until the USS New Jersey Battleship Foundation, with the help of veterans and volunteers in New Jersey, launched an effort to “bring her home.” That is, to bring the Battleship New Jersey home to her namesake.
When the Navy began looking for suitable sites in New Jersey to dock the decorated war ship, three sites emerged as frontrunners: Jersey City’s Liberty State Park, the Military Ocean Terminal in Bayonne, and the Delaware River waterfront in Camden, which is across the harbor from the Philadelphia Navy Yard where the ship was built.
In 2000, Navy Secretary Richard Danzig announced that the Battleship New Jersey would be donated to the Home Port Alliance and berthed in Camden.
Since being docked in Camden, however, the USS New Jersey Battleship Foundation has alleged that the battleship, which was turned into a museum, has not been properly maintained and is not getting the tourist dollars or foot traffic that it should. The foundation is now waging a campaign to have the battleship relocated to Liberty State Park in Jersey City, one of the other sites originally considered for the ship.
Not surprisingly, officials in Camden and South Jersey have launched their own counter campaign to keep the battleship docked right where it is.
What’s $1M got to do with it?
The drama surrounding whether or not the Battleship New Jersey should be relocated has been played out alongside debates about the financial stability of the Home Port Alliance, which operates the battleship museum and maintains the vessel. The USS New Jersey Battleship Foundation and others who believe the ship should be moved to Jersey City have argued that the Home Port Alliance is financially fragile and thus unable to properly manage the ship and museum.
In 2003, the Home Post Alliance received a $1 million loan from Commerce Bank and agreed to repay the debt by making $50,000 in payments annually. The interstate Delaware River Port Authority agreed to be the guarantor of the loan for three years.
Revenues from the battleship museum, however, have not enabled the Home Port Alliance to keep up with the planned payments. So far, a little more than $100,000 has been repaid. Commerce Bank, which is now TD Bank, threatened to demand full repayment of the loan unless the Port Authority continued to guarantee it.
In 2006, and then again in 2009, the Port Authority agreed to extend the loan guarantee for another three years. With pressure mounting to either make the battleship a viable, profitable tourist destination in Camden or move it to Jersey City, some observers thought the Port Authority might back down from another extension. Such a move would have been a significant blow to those who want the battleship to stay in Camden.
With the loan now extended into 2015, the Port Authority’s decision could be a blow to plans to bring the battleship north.
Sam Pesin, president of the Friends of Liberty State Park, was actually pleased with the latest turn of events. “This is great news because Liberty State Park is not the place for it,” he said. “It would block views of the Hudson River and New York skyline. I hope the battleship is in Camden for a long to come to come.”
“I’m not thinking about Sam Pesin right now,” von Zwehl responded. “Right now, all of our efforts are focused on making sure that there is no significant funding in the state budget for the Home Port Alliance.”
Von Zwehl believes the battleship could be a profitable, self-sustaining tourist attraction that would not require public funding if the battleship was moved to the Jersey City side of the New York Harbor. He also estimates the museum could generate about 200 local jobs if the ship were moved to Jersey City.
E-mail E. Assata Wright at email@example.com.