Ship's debt hits $1.3M for '03; officials say it won't close
By CAROL COMEGNO
As the retired battleship New Jersey rests encrusted in winter ice on the Delaware River today, it faces a new battle to prevent it from sinking financially.
The estimated deficit in the Battleship New Jersey Memorial and Museum budget totaled $1.3 million in 2003 but the ship is not in danger of closing, according to museum officials.
The start-up operation of the Navy's most decorated battleship has now experienced a deficit of at least $1 million in its first two calendar years of operation since opening in October 2001 on the Camden Waterfront.
Troy Collins, chief executive officer of the museum, said the ship needs an annual operating subsidy from the state like other major state museums to help keep it afloat financially. He said he hopes such a subsidy will materialize this year.
The museum is run not by the government but by the nonprofit Home Port Alliance, whose co-chairman said state legislators are working with the board to help the ship financially.
"If state money comes, we will get a little breathing room and in a few years, hopefully, the deficit will be gone. It will not disappear overnight, but we know with the dedicated staff we have and the incredible board, we will get there," said Patricia Jones.
Jones said the board is formulating its budget for 2004 and vowed to make it balanced no matter what it takes. She said the ship will remain open even if access and programs become more limited.
One reason cited for the deficit was bad weather - a snowy and cold winter and a rainy spring and summer - that dropped attendance below 200,000.
Another factor, officials said, was the loss of a promised $7.2 million state grant that never materialized last year due to the state budget crisis.
"We are a 2-year-old operation that had no operating revenue for start-up costs and have been trying to deliver a quality experience for visitors. We are in our infancy and need help," Collins said.
He said visitors often think the ship is run by the government and have no idea it receives no government money.
The ship has fallen behind on some of its bills, but Collins said many of the ship's suppliers have been understanding. The museum board laid off 15 percent of its work force of nearly 100 after it realized its revenues were not meeting expenses last fall.
The ship remains closed to individual visitors Tuesday through Thursday until March 1 but still books groups and special events on those days, Collins said.
He said the operation fell $1.3 million short of its revised $5.2 million budget for 2003. The 2002 deficit of about $1 million was covered after the museum secured a line of credit from Commerce Bank.
He said a state grant of about $1.5 million is sorely needed for the future while development staff tries to build a base of contributors. An effort, he said, that often can take years.
Collins said the goal is to attract enough contributors to establish an endowment fund like most major museums have, including the Franklin Institute and the Philadelphia Art Museum.
The retired New Jersey, numbered BB-62, was built at the former Philadelphia Naval Shipyard. This month it was placed on the state register of historic sites. The ship earned 19 campaign stars for fighting in World War II, the Korean War, Vietnam War and the Beirut Crisis.
The state financed $6 million of initial restoration and paid $2 million to bring it to New Jersey. The Delaware River Port Authority and state battleship foundation have underwritten several million dollars in costs.
"Our mission is not to make a profit but to meet expenses while we educate, maintain, restore, preserve and exhibit the battleship," Collins said.
Plans this year to help attract more visitors include a naval Seahawk seaplane motion simulator that can seat 13 people and a new self-guided tour route with more signage and video kiosks. Guided tours will still be offered.
Total number of visitors fell to 192,559 from 217,640 in 2002. However, while daily tour visitation was down, special event attendance at parties, popular overnight encampments and ceremonies rose about 25 percent and is expected to increase more this year, Collins said.
State legislators agree the ship deserves an annual budget appropriation like other major state museums, such as the Newark Museum and the New Jersey State Aquarium in Camden. Those museums received $2 to $3 million each in government support in 2003.
The Assembly and Senate appropriations committee chairmen, both from South Jersey, are trying to exert influence on the Democratic administration in Trenton for a yearly subsidy.
Assemblyman Louis Greenwald, D-Voorhees, said bringing attention to the battleship as a statewide museum deserving of annual support is an important initiative for him and state Sen. Wayne Bryant, D-Lawnside.
"It has officially been recognized as a state historic site and this further boosts our ability to ask the state to support it as it has major museums in the northern part of the state," Bryant said.
Collins said the museum applied for $2 million last year from the Camden Economic Recovery Board but was turned down.
Channing Zucker, executive director emeritus of the Historical Naval Ships Association, said deficits are not unusual for new naval ship museums.
"I think the New Jersey folks are doing a good job. It is uncharted territory. People running them do the best they can with what limited resources they have, and there is always a tendency to overestimate visitors," he said.
Jack Green, a public affairs officer at the Naval Historical Center in Washington D.C., said costs are major obstacles because ship museums are run mostly by volunteers with relatively small paid staffs.
The smaller battleship North Carolina in Wilmington, N.C., used money from a contingency fund and cost reductions to meet its budget of about $2.3 million, said executive director David Sheu.
The battleship USS Missouri in Hawaii has developed some corporate benefactors like Anheuser Busch that allowed the museum to meet its $5.5 million operating budget and pay off start-up loans of $1.1 million in 2003.
Lee Collins, vice president for marketing and sales for the USS Missouri Memorial Association, said a large number of visitors come from Japan.
The Missouri, another Iowa-class ship the size of the New Jersey, is in a balmy climate all year long that allows it to lure more visitors and eliminates the need for ship heat.
"When I saw pictures of the New Jersey on the frozen Delaware this week, I felt sorry for her because I know how it must affect them," Lee Collins said.
Reach Carol Comegno at (609) 267-9486 or email@example.com