Camden battleship plan 'very superior'
By CAROL COMEGNO
CAMDEN - The Home Port Alliance application for a USS New Jersey museum in Camden outscored a proposal from Bayonne in four of the five categories used to pick the winner, a top Navy official said.
The official also praised the Camden application as "very superior" to the typical application received in bids for other ships around the country. Many of those are not contested.
The Navy on Jan. 20 announced its award of the highly decorated battleship to Camden following eight months of review in an intense competition between the alliance and the New Jersey Battleship Commission, which backed Bayonne. The nonprofit alliance hopes to open the ship as a floating museum on the Waterfront as early as the spring of 2001.
"The alliance application met every one of the criteria right out of the box in their initial proposal, and we had very few questions," said Michael Hammes, deputy assistant secretary of the Navy for research and development, in an exclusive interview with the Courier-Post.
An executive committee led by Hammes approved the application unanimously.
The five areas studied by Hammes' staff were mooring, financing, museum display, community support and benefit to the Navy.
"In four of the five factors, their proposal was better than Bayonne," Hammes said.
"It's true that Camden had more local financial commitment, but we considered both applications equal in that area, because we concluded each had enough money committed to open the ship as a museum memorial and maintain it over time," he said.
He declined to give the actual rankings in each category, saying he did not believe in "rubbing salt into the wounds" of the loser.
Community support was considered, but did not have to become a decisive factor because the Camden proposal ranked so much higher than Bayonne's, Hammes said.
"We were impressed with the support of the people for Camden and the effort to bring redevelopment to the community not only on the New Jersey side, but on the Pennsylvania side (of the river)."
He said the Navy also paid attention to the welcoming of the ship back to the Delaware River, where hundreds of boats and more than 25,000 people watched it return to the river where it was built and launched in 1942.
While Camden had its site approval from various regulatory agencies and Bayonne did not, the Navy concluded Bayonne could have eventually gotten the green light to host the ship, Hammes said.
One Navy question answered satisfactorily by the alliance dealt with whether Camden, which depends on state subsidies to meet its budget, would have any financial involvement. Home Port officials told the Navy the city had no direct financial or operational involvement with the alliance, even though Mayor Milton Milan is a board member.
Hammes said the Navy was impressed with the congressional interest in this ship donation, but was not pressured by any congressmen to choose either site.
"Given the high visibility of this ship ... they did a fine job of allowing the Navy to do its job. Yes, they had questions like, 'Are you on schedule?' and, 'Is the other side giving you any pressure?' "
He said congressmen asked for a fair and impartial review and that is what they got.
Retired Navy Capt. David McGuigan of Haddonfield, alliance president, said the Navy already had told him the application was outstanding. "It was outstanding because we did not merely make statements. We supported them with documentation," he said.
On Friday, battleship commission chairman Joseph Azzolina and six other commissioners - half of the commission - attended a briefing by the Navy in Washington on why the commission's preferred site of Bayonne was not chosen.
The only two South Jersey commissioners, retired Salem County freeholder Joseph Dyer and Joseph Balzano, executive director of the South Jersey Port Corp., said they were not invited.
"It's unbelievable. I am proud to be a commissioner, and I am really disappointed, and I was not informed," said Balzano, also a member of the Home Port Alliance.
Dyer said it appears Azzolina has his "favorite sons" that don't include the South Jersey commissioners. Azzolina could not be reached for comment.