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Sunday, December 3, 2000

Museum plans bogged down in issues and egos

Courier-Post Staff

It's a battle over the battleship. As the trustees of the Home Port Alliance prepare to approve the design for the USS New Jersey museum, a rift has developed over a number of key issues including the project's size and cost.

The alliance has adopted a Sept. 2, 2001, target date for a partial opening of the ship museum, but board officials say that will make it impossible to prepare the lower decks. And if the board approves a larger museum than the original concept, the cost would exceed the $20 million now committed or proposed for the pier, ship restoration and a museum.

The board still has yet to decide on a design for the $5. 2 million pier, whose construction is supposed to begin in January.

The board is now working without the input of the president and two key members who compiled the successful ship museum application that persuaded the Navy to choose Camden instead of a Bayonne site proposed by the state battleship commission during an intense competition.

The two members resigned since September. The president, retired Capt. David McGuigan, who also tendered his resignation, told the Courier-Post on Friday he is seriously considering remaining on the board as a result of a recent letter he received from the other trustees. He declined to comment further. The board declined to accept his Nov. 9 resignation, asking him to reconsider and calling his "Herculean efforts" invaluable and his presence on the board needed for future challenges.

The board is also planning to discuss the job performance of its paid executive director, Thomas Seigenthaler, at its meeting Wednesday because of a pattern of communications problems that include ignoring board directives, said board members and other sources.

They spoke on condition of anonymity, fearful that state and Delaware River Port Authority funds could be withheld.

Sources on and close to the board say Coopers Ferry Development Corp., the DRPA, the governor's office and some consultants are trying to control the project.

They say factors like these played a partial role in the resignations of McGuigan; Ann Duvall, an aide to Sen. John Matheussen, R-Gloucester; and Linda Hayes, a DRPA grants specialist. However, the three resignation letters cited only personal reasons, saying the project had been extremely time consuming.

Board member Patricia Jones and Vice President Donald Norcross acknowledge there have been differences on the board in recent months.

"The board is undergoing significant change, and there are all kinds of influences coming to bear," said Jones. " Some people are able to make the adjustment and others cannot, and it is unfortunate we would lose people who were there at the beginning."

However, she said she remains faithful to the goals of the Navy proposal, though that plan may have to change.

Jones said she has questioned why the state chose to funnel its money through the DRPA instead of the state Department of Military and Veterans Affairs. "The process is convoluted, but I have to accept what the state has decided because it will make the project happen."

Norcross said there have been board differences over the "massaging" of the plan presented for the battleship but declined to confirm that a power struggle was on.

"It's about the fact that they just want to be in charge. Coopers Ferry is funded by the DRPA and lost its entertainment project on this side of the river. The DRPA wants to be in charge of everything on the Waterfront, and the governor's office wants the ship opened in September while she is still in office," said one source. "The state and DRPA hold the purse strings, but I think it is also a sheer control issue of wanting to be in charge."

He and others called McGuigan an "independent voice" who has no political ties to any group and who has provided inspirational leadership for more than two years and without whom the ship might have ended up in Bayonne.

Other trustees said there have been long-standing problems with Seigenthaler, who they say has formed an alliance with Coopers Ferry and the DRPA.

The state has approved $6 million for the project, paid the ship's transit through the Panama Canal last year and is contemplating another $7.2 million for the land museum and to make more areas of the ship accessible. The DRPA has committed $2 million of its own.

However, Seigenthaler acknowledged that more money would be needed than is currently committed or proposed for a larger museum being proposed by architectural consultant Leo Daly of Omaha, Neb. That alone could cost about $21 million. Under the vision plan in the original application, present funds and the $7.2 million would be enough to cover the cost of an enclosed interpretive walkway in a smaller building.

On his job performance, Seigenthaler said he has tried to work with the board.

"I am sorry that that is an issue with them. We have very busy people and it is difficult to verify discussions and meetings," he said. "We are working different projects all at one time. If you spend time talking individually to all the members, you never get anywhere. We try to keep people informed as to what is going on. ... If people feel they are being left out, I am really sorry, but you have to give a guy a job and let him do it."

Trustees like Matheussen and Frank Fulbrook, a Camden activist, said they see no power struggle. Matheussen said no state money has been needed because there are no construction contracts yet.

DRPA vice chairman Glenn Paulsen, a new member of the alliance, has not attended meetings for months. Instead, he sends David Murphy, the DRPA director of economic development, who cannot vote.

"We're not trying to control the board. I don't even get involved in the week-to-week board operation. My contribution the past months has been to work out an arrangement for receiving the state money for the battleship project," said Paulsen.

Although some members acknowledge some of Murphy's input has been valuable, they question why the board has allowed him to attend most meetings.

Camden Mayor Milton Milan, who is in the midst of a corruption trial in Camden, also has not been attending meetings this year.

Thomas Corcoran, executive director of the Coopers Ferry Development Corp., is an alliance member but has not returned several phone calls to the Courier-Post.

The board rejected an early attempt by Corcoran to have Coopers Ferry become the project manager, but ethics issues were raised. Instead the board advertised the contract and hired Hill International of Willingboro.

A spokeswoman for Gov. Christie Whitman said the state has a seat on the board, and this gives it more than just financial review of the project. She denied the state was trying to run the board.

"And it would be fitting for the ship to open before a governor who has so fully supported the ship leaves office," said spokeswoman Stephanie Bell.

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