By CAROL COMEGNO
An Assembly committee Thursday approved legislation to provide an additional $7.2 million to refurbish the historic battleship USS New Jersey in Camden.
The bill now heads to the Assembly appropriations committee.
The unanimous vote by the Assembly Commerce, Tourism, Gaming and Military and Veterans Affairs Committee was the first action on the additional money for the ship since a Senate bill was introduced in February 2000.
The Senate bill, originally sponsored by now-acting Gov. Donald DiFrancesco, has yet to be considered by a committee in that house.
Support for the Assembly bill from five South Jersey legislators on the seven-member committee ensured its approval. The bill also was supported by the committee chairman, Assemblyman Joseph Azzolina, R-Monmouth, who heads the state battleship commission and foundation.
"The additional appropriation is a significant investment that will enhance and accelerate development of the USS New Jersey memorial site," said Assemblyman George Geist, R-Camden, who co-sponsored the bill.
The money would be spent by the Home Port Alliance, the South Jersey coalition that plans to spend more than $22 million on converting the battleship into a museum at the Waterfront in downtown Camden, scheduled to open Sept. 2.
The bill would provide $7.2 million "for the enclosure of a two-tiered interpretive walkway" and refurbishment of " all decks" for public access.
Geist elicited a commitment from retired Rear Adm. Thomas Seigenthaler, alliance executive director, that the alliance would keep its meetings open to the public.
The state had paid $2.2 million to tow the ship from Washington state to New Jersey via the Panama Canal and committed $6 million to replace the teak deck, pay for environmental cleanup and other repairs. The money is being funneled to the alliance through the Delaware River Port Authority.