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Thursday, August 11, 2005Past Issues - S | M | T | W | T | F | S
South Jersey

Lessons learned from other ships that became museums

Courier-Post Staff

Keeping the USS New Jersey afloat during its 5,800-mile journey from Washington state to Philadelphia was easy. Keeping the battleship afloat financially when it becomes a Camden museum will be another story entirely.

Examples of successful ship-to-museum conversions exist around the country. One with certain parallels to the New Jersey is the USS Lexington, an aircraft carrier museum berthed in Corpus Christi, Texas.

The Lexington is stationed within walking distance of an aquarium, just like the New Jersey will be. The two also have similar budgets: It costs about $3.5 million annually to run the "Lady Lex," while officials estimate the New Jersey will incur expenses of $3.8 million in its first year. The Home Port Alliance, which will operate the "Big J" museum, hopes to open the attraction in summer 2001.

The Texas carrier, which opened in 1992, attracts around 320,000 visitors and generates about $3.8 million in revenue each year, according to its executive director, retired Capt. Rocco Montesano. Income is derived solely from donations, tickets ($9 for adults, $4 for kids), gift shop sales and an educational sleepover program for groups like the Boy Scouts.

Montesano said the biggest financial boon to the "Lady Lex" has been the sleepovers, which officials at the New Jersey plan to offer as well. In Texas, the events have gone from 3,000 people the first year to 16,000.

But generating revenue, Montesano said, is just as important as resisting the urge to overspend. Especially in the euphoric aftermath of bringing the ship home, Montesano says New Jersey officials have to realize that not everyone is as excited about the "Big J" as they are. He suggested cutting a third off the number of tourists expected to visit the ship so there's a margin for error in the first year's budget.

The Home Port Alliance is conservatively estimating the New Jersey will get 300,000 visitors the first year and 250,000 the following year or two before rising again.

The USS North Carolina, berthed near Wilmington, N.C., has recently averaged 225,000 visitors annually, down from about 250,000 in previous years, according to Roger Miller, the facility's assistant director.

The battleship's annual operating budget of $2.2 million is generated solely through donations, tickets ($8 for adults, $4 for children) and gift shop sales.

Because "not many people travel to Wilmington (specifically) to see the battleship," Miller said they attract visitors by advertising heavily with tour groups and at resorts in Myrtle Beach, S.C. The ship also gets a lot of incidental visitors from people traveling the two nearby interstates and going to area beaches. The battleship is planning to offer sleepovers in the near future.

The USS Massachusetts has a somewhat different situation. It's berthed in Fall River, Mass., in Battleship Cove, which is home to the Massachusetts, the destroyer USS Joseph P. Kennedy Jr., the submarine USS Lionfish, two PT boats and several other craft.

The cove gets about 130,000 tourists a year, said retired Capt. Ernst NOTE:cq Cummings, executive director of the organization that oversees the vessels. Some visitors are tourists heading to Boston or Cape Cod; others are interested in the military hardware.

Cummings wouldn't disclose the annual budget, but said the cove is funded solely by admission fees ($9 for adults, $4.50 for kids), souvenirs and sleepovers, as well as donations.

"We have a continuous membership drive, kind of low-key," Cummings said.

Both the Massachusetts and the North Carolina, though, received state aid for big refurbishing projects, as will the New Jersey.

The Massachusetts had a $10 million dry-dock overhaul funded by the Bay State last year, while the North Carolina is getting half of the $6 million needed to replace the teak on certain decks from the state of North Carolina. (The state of New Jersey has promised a $6 million grant for the "Big J," which will also get money from a state income tax checkoff and commemorative license plate.)

It's debatable whether having several vessels together such as at the sites of the Massachusetts, the USS Intrepid in New York and USS Yorktown in South Carolina is a bigger draw than a single ship, like the Lexington or North Carolina.

Miller, from the North Carolina museum, said multiple ships can be a drain on finances as much as they can be an added attraction.

"You can't really increase the ticket price to keep up the maintenance on other ships," he said.

The New Jersey may have the best of both worlds. It's the only ship under the financial purview of the Home Port Alliance, but there are also two military ships on the other side of the Delaware River the Independence Seaport Museum boasts the 1892 cruiser Olympia, which served in the Spanish-American War, and World War II submarine Becuna.

But in terms of attracting visitors, the financial lifeblood of these museums, word of mouth may be most important. Visitors to the "Big J" will have to spread the news that the ship is actually something worth seeing.

Retired Capt. Channing Zucker, executive director of the Historic Navy Ships Association, said that educational and interpretive displays have to appeal to ordinary tourists, not just those with a military background.

"In years past, it was (mainly veterans visiting the ships), but not so much anymore," Zucker said. "Those that are most successful are those that are able to develop innovative exhibits and displays that appeal to spouses and children."

Added Cummings, from the USS Massachusetts: "It just takes a lot of hard work a lot of sweat, tears and money, and hopefully the people will come."

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