By CAROL COMEGNO
The year-old Battleship New Jersey Memorial and Museum is making economic waves along the Camden Waterfront, boosting the city's tourism efforts and spurring increased attendance at neighboring Delaware River attractions.
And the floating museum's officials say they're just getting started. They predict thousands of new visitors as the ship emerges from a transitional year in which it evolved from a $20 million construction project to an operational museum with annual expenses of $4.4 million.
The Home Port Alliance, a South Jersey-based nonprofit coalition that operates the museum, said the ship attracted about 225,000 visitors since it opened Oct. 15, 2001. It debuted amid fanfare tempered by the war on terrorism, and benefited from an upsurge in patriotism that helped early attendance but waned quickly, museum officials said.
"Now we have to step up our appeal to new levels to remain fresh," said alliance co-chairman John Matheussen, a Republican state senator from Gloucester County. A stronger marketing campaign and extra features, such as more more accommodations for overnight encampment trips, are planned.
The ship's upriver neighbor, the New Jersey State Aquarium, remains the No. 1 tourist attraction on the the Philadelphia-Camden waterfront - and was tops in the state this past fiscal year - with more than a half-million visitors.
But battleship officials consider the USS New Jersey's first-year attendance respectable when weighed against several challenges. Among the debut's challenges: it occurred before restoration was complete, came a month after the 9/11 attacks and coincided with a year of national economic downturn.
"It's not the high end of our revised estimate of 200, 000 to 250,000, but we are pleased in view of all the circumstances of being a work in progress," said Patricia Jones, the alliance's other co-chair.
Officials last year lowered the museum's attendance goal from 350,000 - the target figure in their application to the Navy for the retired ship - to between 200,000 and 250, 000. That was for several reasons, including revised plans that offered only a temporary visitor center without meeting rooms or museum displays, a delay in making the main deck handicapped-accessible, and a late grand opening that missed the summer season.
Nevertheless, officials for Camden's marketing efforts and other tourist attractions say the historic ship's conversion to a museum is helping make the state's poorest city a better tourist destination and aiding the region's economy.
Judi London, director of the Camden waterfront marketing bureau, said the ship, aquarium, Camden Children's Garden and Tweeter Center entertainment complex are mutually benefiting one another.
The battleship has been a catalyst for bringing the group tour industry to the waterfront for the first time and for luring a new demographic group - active adults and seniors, London said.
"The ship is an incredible draw," she said. "By packaging the ship with the (RiverLink) Ferry and Independence Seaport Museum on the Philadelphia waterfront, the aquarium and our Red, White and Blue Revue by the Westmont Theatre Company, we have enough for a whole day's itinerary - something we never had before."
Brian DuVall, the aquarium's president, said his 581,500 fiscal year attendance was helped by the ship and vice versa. For instance, aquarium attendance this past July was 83,000 - 6,000 more than a year ago. Much of that rise was due to visitors who favored traveling shorter distances to regional entertainment venues, such as the aquarium and ship, after 9/11, he said.
"We know that some group tour operators, especially in the senior market as well as school groups, visit both places," DuVall said. "We have waited for so long to have another attraction like this."
The 887-foot-long USS New Jersey is the most decorated battleship in Navy history. It earned 19 campaign stars and other citations during a nearly 50-year career in which it saw action in World War II, the Korean War, Vietnam War and the Beirut crisis. It has been restored to its 1980s configuration, with missiles and other modern weaponry augmenting its nine 16-inch guns that remain unmatched in power.
"We have the most fully restored modern warship museum in the world," said ship curator Scott Kodger. "No ship is more complete with post-World War II technology."
The ship has proved appealing to military veterans and nonveterans alike.
Former crew members like Eugene Crumley of East Peoria, Ill., Bob Neiltopp of South Amboy and Edward Campbell of of Fairfield, Calif., raved about their shipboard reunion of the USS New Jersey Veterans Inc. last month.
"It's the best we ever had and the ship looked great," said Crumley, 71, a Korean War crewman who was among the nearly 1,500 to attend the event. "We enjoyed reminiscing and we all have more pride in the country right now."
Martin Abo, a Cherry Hill accountant and recent visitor, said he wasn't expecting to enjoy his trip to the museum.
"When it came here a few years ago before it opened, I didn't see what all the fuss was about and said, `La-di-da, a ship is coming,'" Abo said. "But now I tell you - it's the best-kept secret around.
"It's sheer magnificence is something to behold - and I' m not even a veteran or a history buff. You don't have to be. It's so big and such a symbol of national pride and you can see how people lived on it. I think everyone should take their children."
Abo suggested museum officials could do a better job of marketing the ship to the public.
Troy Collins, newly appointed executive director and chief financial officer for the museum, plans to do just that.
Collins said the ship met its revised attendance projection with a very limited marketing campaign and without a full-blown fund-raising effort to attract corporate and individual sponsors.
Around the country, ship museums are reporting flat or declining attendance this year.
Collins and other staff are developing specific plans to boost attendance at the USS New Jersey. They include greater school involvement and more educational programs such as overnight camping trips, and a larger sales force to handle those areas.
"I can see increasing our attendance to the 250,000 range next year or perhaps even more," Collins said. "Our plan is to raise revenue, but to raise revenue you often have to spend more by hiring the right professionals now to do it."
An expansion of sleeping accommodations below the main deck for overnight programs, from 70 beds to at least 225, has begun, Collins said. More encampment fees can raise revenue as can ship rentals, which now range from $250 to $ 10,000 for private events, he said.
Joseph Balzano, head of the Home Port Alliance's construction committee, said other challenges lie ahead. The museum needs additional parking and must open up more parts of the ship, such as the boiler rooms, he said.
"This ship looks like it's live and ready to sail," Balzano said. "We're darned proud of the job we've all done."
The battleship is also working with other riverfront attractions to bring more tourists. It and the Independence Seaport Museum are offering a new discounted, joint ticket arrangement. A similar arrangement between the ship and aquarium is due to be in place by January.
Collins said he expects to meet 2002 expenses with revenue generated mainly from admissions but also from special events, overnight encampments and retail sales. The project no longer receives state, federal and Camden County government grants that mainly financed its construction and initial restoration.
Salaries of the ship's 59 full-time and part-time workers make up 47 percent of the operating budget, with utilities to heat and cool the ship the largest nonsalary expense, Collins said.
Seventeen of those employees - nearly 30 percent of the museum's work force - live in Camden. While that's a good start, alliance officials said, it's not as high as they'd like to see in their effort to hire city residents.
The museum would be hard-pressed to operate, however, without another work force - hundreds of volunteers who do nearly everything from conduct guided tours to restore the hulking steel ship. The volunteers - who include retirees, housewives, former battleship sailors and ex-shipyard workers - have donated 170,000 hours since the ship arrived in Camden.
Kodger, the curator, said interior restoration is continuing with help from volunteers and such organizations as L3 Communications, Lockheed Martin, Raytheon, Verizon, Cooper Hospital/University Medical Center in Camden and Kean University in Union County. They continue to donate in- kind services as well as money.
Museum officials have also reached beyond South Jersey to individuals and established battleship groups from the state's central and northern regions. Those people and organizations were stung when the Navy awarded the ship to Camden in 2000 instead of to Bayonne.
Two groups based in the northern half of the state, the Battleship New Jersey Historical Museum Society and the New Jersey Battleship Foundation, are now working on ship projects. And several North Jersey residents now serve on the alliance board of of trustees, including West New York Police Director Joseph Pelliccio.
The battleship foundation has donated $2.1 million to the project for exhibits, encampment expansion, tour routes, tour guide uniforms and exterior lighting, using income it derives from the license plate sales and income tax checkoffs.
"It's what we should be doing and we're all one big family now," said Larry Engel, the foundation's director.
Reach Carol Comegno at (609) 267-9486 or firstname.lastname@example.org