Attraction seeks permanent state aid
By CAROL COMEGNO
The Battleship New Jersey Memorial and Museum is laying off staff and taking other measures to help close a budget deficit in its $5.7 million operation.
The steps, described as temporary, are needed to cut costs at the two-year-old attraction on Camden's Waterfront, said Patricia Jones, co-chairman of the museum board of trustees.
She said a wet spring and summer, coming after a cold, snowy winter, had depressed attendance. And due to the state budget crisis in 2002, the museum lost $7.2 million in expected state aid for further restoration.
"We are at the whims of Mother Nature and the economy, but we are also in our infancy and need help," she said.
"Our goal is to keep the ship open and well-maintained, and we will continue to heat and cool it even though utilities are one of our major expenses," she said.
Jones said the nonprofit Home Port Alliance that runs the museum is seeking not only stopgap funding from the state now, but also a permanent subsidy like other major museums receive in the state budget.
She said the board has been meeting with state legislators whom they believe will help to secure money. Museum officials are to meet Monday with state Treasurer John McCormac to ask for immediate financial help, Jones said.
The board voted to furlough 15 percent of its 90 full- and part-time paid employees and to reduce hours of others to save about $85,000 a month, she said.
The cutbacks, expected to total about $400,000, will not affect the ship's many volunteers.
Layoffs began this month for seasonal part-time workers like bus drivers and some middle managers, tradesmen, retail clerks and ticketing employees.
Jones said the hope is to bring them back to work in three to six months.
In addition, she said the ship will be closed to public tours Tuesdays through Thursdays of each week in January. It will remain open on those days for school groups and for groups that rent the ship for special events.
The ship this year expects about 150,000 daily tour visitors, based on the year-to-date level of 132,000. That would be down from 200,000 daily tour visitors last year, said executive director Troy Collins.
But attendance has risen by 25 percent for special events and sleep-over encampments for the public and youth groups. That category is expected to include 50,000 people this year, up from 40,000 in 2002.
Holiday-weekend attendance plummeted this year due to weather, including a snowstorm that forced the museum to close on President's Day.
Three key South Jersey legislators said they believe the battleship deserves permanent state funding.
Assembly Majority Leader Joe Roberts Jr., D-Camden, said he is convinced a stable source of money can be found for the battleship to supplement ticket sales and contributions.
"It is our goal to see the battleship New Jersey is treated fairly as a state museum and provide both the respect and permanent grant it deserves," he said.
The Newark Museum received $2.8 million this year and Liberty State Park and Science Center in Jersey City received more than $2.1 million.
State Sen. Wayne Bryant, D-Lawnside, and Assemblyman Louis Greenwald, D-Voorhees, who chair the appropriation committees in their respective legislative houses, recently recommended to the Democratic administration of Gov. James McGreevey that ship money be put into the state budget.
"The ship is not just a Camden project but a state museum for all the state," said Bryant.
Visitors to the battleship endorsed the call for more state support.
"If it doesn't get state grants like other museums, it should. It's just as important," said Jeff Peterbaugh, 24, a bridge engineer from Haddonfield who toured the ship Saturday.
Other first-time visitors, Richard Rodriguez and wife Elsa Rivera of Camden, were surprised to learn the state does not run the ship.
"It definitely should get more support then. It's a learning tool and adds a lot to the waterfront and the state," said Rodriguez, 45, a pharmacy driver.
When the museum operation fell short during its first full year of operation in 2002, the board raised admission and rental fees and secured a $1 million line of credit from Commerce Bank that was backed by the Delaware River Port Authority.
"We're hoping we will not have to repay that to DRPA, but we can't keep borrowing money," said Jones.
The New Jersey is the most decorated U.S. battleship with 19 campaign stars. Among other actions, it served in World War II, the Korean War and the Vietnam War.
Reach Carol Comegno at (609) 267-9486 or email@example.com