More state aid proposed for battleship
By CAROL COMEGNO and ARON PILHOFER
TRENTON - State Senate President Donald T. DiFrancesco on Tuesday proposed more than doubling the state's financial aid for the battleship USS New Jersey project in Camden to $13.2 million.
He said he and state Sen. John Matheussen, R-Gloucester, will introduce legislation to allocate an additional $7.2 million for the battleship memorial and museum along the Camden Waterfront. The state already has pledged $6 million.
The additional money would allow the Home Port Alliance - the nonprofit group that defeated Bayonne in a Navy competition for guardianship of the mothballed battleship - to open up the engine room and other areas on the lower decks, build an enclosed double-decker walkway highlighting the ship's history and add a 15-seat theater, DiFrancesco said.
"The USS New Jersey ... deserves to be showcased top to bottom and with unquestionable year-round accessibility," said DiFrancesco, who joined Matheussen and other officials in Panama in October when the ship went through the Panama Canal, but remained neutral while the Navy was reviewing the two sites.
"We must do whatever we can to make this floating museum a world-class facility worthy of New Jersey's namesake vessel."
The money would bring total funds available for the project to slightly more than $20 million, Matheussen said. The rest is a combination of federal, Camden County and other state funds.
Matheussen, a trustee of the Home Port Alliance, said the new money would allow more work to take place immediately, rather than phasing in improvements over a five-year period. The Home Port Alliance hopes for a 2001 opening of the memorial museum along the Camden Waterfront behind the E-Centre and near the State Aquarium.
Retired Navy Capt. David McGuigan of Haddonfield, the alliance's president, said he is "really pleased" at DiFrancesco's proposal.
"The added funds would enable the alliance to accelerate its plan for development by enclosing the open-air walkway and building a world-class facility right up front," McGuigan said Tuesday.
McGuigan said the second floor of an enclosed walkway leading visitors to the battleship could be used by groups like the Battleship Historical Society and crew association reunions for meetings and exhibits. The first floor would enclose plazas showcasing the ship's history from construction during World War II to its role in wars and in peacekeeping.
Vincent Falso of Mountainside, Union County, president of the 25-year-old Battleship New Jersey Historical Museum Society, said he would support more public money for the battleship.
Home Port Alliance trustee Pat Jones, a Democrat and Camden County freeholder, called the announcement "wonderful."
She said it shows a commitment beyond South Jersey and the importance of the ship to the state as a whole.
"And no matter what the amount, we have to remember public financial support will be needed from year to year for upkeep of the ship," she said.
With the Senate president's backing, Matheussen said the bill will have no trouble passing in that house. However, Assembly Speaker Jack Collins, R-Salem, stopped short of endorsing the proposal when he learned of it Tuesday.
"It's nice to see the Senate president weighing in on support of the Camden project, and it sounds like a good concept, but where would the money come from and what amount? We will surely take a look at it," said Collins, an early supporter of the Home Port Alliance effort to bring the ship to Camden.
DiFrancesco said visitors should be able to experience the ship's history and see everything from the engine room and crew quarters to the upper decks.
The ship remains moored at the Naval Inactive Ships Maintenance Facility at the former Philadelphia Naval Shipyard. The Navy chose the Camden site on Jan. 20, following an eight-month review.