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By MICHAEL T. BURKHART
The state Senate is poised to vote today on a $7.2 million grant to help refurbish the USS New Jersey while the group operating the battleship finalizes plans for an opening later this month.
The funding bill, introduced 20 months ago, still would have to win approval from the state Assembly. Acting Gov. Donald T. DiFrancesco is a sponsor, so the legislation is expected to cross his desk rapidly.
"I think the bill has very good bipartisan support," said Sen. John J. Matheussen, the bill's other sponsor. Matheussen also is co-chairman of the Home Port Alliance, the group restoring the historic ship.
Alliance members are working to settle on an opening date for the ship, said Rear Adm. Thomas Seigenthaler, the group's executive director. The biggest unresolved issue: coordinating calendars with dignitaries and speakers invited to the ship's debut.
The battleship also lacks an occupancy permit that the state Department of Community Affairs must issue before it can open to the public, said DCA spokesman E.J. Miranda. The department will inspect the ship when the alliance is ready.
Matheussen said he's confident the paperwork and inspections will be completed in the next few days.
The New Jersey, one of the Navy's most decorated battleships, was supposed to open on Labor Day weekend. But those plans were stymied by several factors, including permit problems and a tropical storm.
"People have to to understand the enormity of the project," said Matheussen, R-Gloucester. "It's just such a big project."
In about a year, volunteers and contractors painted the ship inside and out, built a pier in the Delaware River, acquired artifacts and set up displays. They also built a museum and gift shop.
Permit problems put a halt to construction of the visitors center this summer, and trouble pile driving for the mooring system slowed the process. Work resumed after fee and permit issues were resolved.
On top of that, a tropical storm in the Gulf of Mexico delayed a shipment of steel for the pier, and the threat of war after the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks in New York and Washington forced a delay in moving the ship to its final berth. Under the cover of early morning darkness last month, the ship was moved upriver to its permanent home.
On Tuesday, workers poured concrete at the north end of the $11 million T-shaped pier. Today, a contractor is expected to work on the south end.
Weeks Marine, the the contractor building the pier, should be finished with its part of the project by the end of this week, Seigenthaler said. The project then will be turned over to the topside contractor, AP Construction Co. of Blackwood, which will finish the pier with brick pavers, lighting and railings, as well as a pair of elevators.
"We're getting there," Seigenthaler said. "We're chugging along."
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