$7.2M in `Big J' funding passes hurdle
By CAROL COMEGNO
CAMDEN - Speakers before a state Senate committee hearing here Friday on the battleship USS New Jersey praised the historic ship for its potential as a tourist-generating economic engine for the region.
Cooper Ferry Development Corp. President Thomas Corcoran said the ship will be the southern anchor and "crown jewel" on the Camden Waterfront, attracting 300,000 visitors a year when it opens at the end of the summer of 2001 behind the E-Centre.
David McGuigan, a retired Navy captain and president of the group spearheading the museum effort, told the committee the Home Port Alliance sees the ship as an instrument of "social action" in the rebirth of Camden and the further development of the region.
Friday's vote by the Senate Committee on Economic Growth, Agriculture and Tourism to release a bill boosting the state's funding of the ship's restoration by $7.2 million also was greeted with enthusiasm.
"We want it to be a first-class, all-season attraction and we want all of its decks opened," said state Sen. John Matheussen, R-Gloucester, who co-sponsored the bill with state Senate President Donald DiFrancesco, R-Union.
The bill now goes to the Senate Budgetary Committee for consideration.
"I'm excited ... and so pleased to see all kinds of people coming to Camden and working together, smiling," said Gwendolyn Faison, Camden City Council president.
Since the Navy's Jan. 20 approval of a plan by the Home Port Alliance to create a ship museum in Camden instead of the state battleship commission proposal for Bayonne, lawmakers in both houses of the Legislature introduced companion bills to increase the state's financial commitment. The state had already agreed to give $6 million toward the ship's restoration.
"I'm exhilarated because this will move the project along more rapidly ... and ensure long-term success," McGuigan said.
He said more money will allow replacement of the entire teak deck and the initial opening of three tour routes on the ship instead of one. McGuigan, on Friday, gave a projected opening date of Sept. 20, 2001.
Friday's action comes two days after the administration of Gov. Christie Whitman quashed a plan by the battleship commission to sue the Navy over the decision.
The Senate committee was an all-South Jersey contingent assembled specifically for the vote because several senators from central and North Jersey could not attend. The substitute members included Matheussen and Sens. Diane Allen, R-Burlington and Wayne Bryant, D-Camden. If the increased state funding is approved, the project will have close to $20 million, including $3.2 million from Camden County and $1 million from the Camden Empowerment Zone Corp.