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South Jersey

April 24, 1994

Effort launched to bring USS New Jersey to Waterfront

Courier-Post staff

When the USS New Jersey rolled down the ways of the Philadelphia Naval Shipyard and into the Delaware on Dec. 7, 1942, the nation's newest battleship didn't stop until it reached the opposite shore.

The date of the launch was well planned - a none-too-subtle reminder to the Japanese that Pearl Harbor had not been forgotten.

'Kissing' the shore of New Jersey was not, but it was a nice touch - the battleship greeting its namesake just after being Christened. No serious damage was done to either ship or shore.

Now there is a move afoot to bring the New Jersey home for good - to the Camden waterfront, if possible. It is a long shot. But if it could be brought here as a tourist attraction, some say, the 888-foot, 44,000-ton battleship could give the Camden waterfront a major boost.

'Modern aircraft carriers are a good deal larger than the old battleships,' notes Joe Azzolina, the state assemblyman who heads the state commission dedicated to bringing the mothballed New Jersey home, 'but they don't create goosebumps the way a battleship does.'

Indeed, the unique shape, armor and armament of battleships have made them major tourist attractions in other states: Texas, Alabama, North Carolina and Massachusetts.

The first three draw in the vicinity of 250,000 to 300,000 visitors a year, the last about 150,000.

'Sure, we'd like to have the New Jersey to draw more tourists to the Camden waterfront,' Tom Corcoran, executive director of the Cooper Ferry Development Association, says. 'But there are a number of problems. If you parked it parallel along the waterfront, just for starters, you'd block the view of Philadelphia. And there are some big costs involved.'

Joe Balzano, the executive director of the South Jersey Port Corporation, is more enthusiastic about the idea.

'They could do it. They should do it,' Balzano said, referring to Cooper's Ferry, the lead organization in the development of the downtown waterfront.

'They did it in New York (the Intrepid, a World War II carrier, draws about 500,000 people a year.) They do it right across the river, in Philadelphia (where the Olympia draws about 180,000 visitors per year). There's no reason we couldn't do it on the Camden waterfront - and link it to New York ship and the city's history as well.'

A slip at the Port Corporation's Beckett Street Terminal, just south of the proposed Sony/PACE amphitheater, is one possibility for the New Jersey, Balzano said. Dredging a slip next to the Ben Franklin Bridge is another, according to Corcoran.

Finding a berth for the historic ship, however, is only the last of a series of battles the city of Camden would have to win to add the New Jersey to the state Aquarium as a waterfront tourist attraction.

The most formidable opponent is the Navy itself, which is not yet ready to relinquish the New Jersey.

'The New Jersey is what we call a 'mobilization asset,'' said a Navy spokesman in Washington. That means we consider it still of value - a candidate for reactivation. They are sealed up, dehumidified and their machinery specially protected so they can be ready to go in relatively short order.'

'When these battleships are considered in excess,' the spokesman continued, 'the Navy will certainly entertain requests from groups that want to obtain them and turn them into memorials or museums. But there is no telling when that might happen. The decision is made by the Chief of Naval Ooperations on the basis of strategic need.'

Second on the list of Camden's opponents is the state's own battleship commission and its ally, a private non-profit group dedicated to the same cause. Both have been working since 1975 to bring the New Jersey home. But both think that Liberty State Park in Jersey City is the most logical resting place.

'The population needed to support an attraction like this is in the north,' Azzolina says bluntly, 'and so are the people with money.'

The Navy will donate the ship when its ready (while retaining ownership and the right to reclaim its asset). The recipients are on their own from there. Just towing the New Jersey from its current home, Bremerton, Washington, could cost $5 million or more, Azzolina and others figure. Then there is the cost of preparing a slip (another $3 million or so if a slip were dredged next to the Ben Franklin Bridge in Camden) and making the ship ready for tourists (replacing ladders with stairs and otherwise making a warship both safe and accessible for visitors.). We're looking at a cost of at least $20 million,' Azzolina says.

So far the non-profit group, the Battleship New Jersey Historical Museum Society, has raised about $170,000.

'The economic climate is hardly favorable to fundraising,' Leon Morrison, executive vice president of the society explained. 'Even charitable groups are having a difficult time. And with acquisition of the ship still so uncertain, we've been advised to hold off with any fundraising drive.'

Morrison is not optimisitic about state help either, given the current emphasis in Trenton on cutting rather than spending.

Rita Manno, a spokeswoman for Christie Whitman, lends support to Morrison's view.

'Of course the governor would like to see the New Jersey brought home, Manno says, 'and she will be willing to consider all the sites that are proposed, including Camden. It's a little premature, however, with no definite proposal on the table, to talk about state funding. She would be hoping for some creative financing for a project, financing that could include state support but would most likely also rely on private fund raising.'

Still, there are reasons for Camden to keep its hopes of getting the New Jersey alive. The Navy is constantly evaluating and re-evaluating its needs and could decide, if not that it no longer needs any battleships in ready reserve, that it does not need four of them.

The New Jersey, as the only ship from a coastal state (the others are the Iowa, the Missouri and the Wisconsin) could be the first to be released.

Gov. Whitman began her term by rejecting a sports arena proposed for Camden and may feel inclined to do something else for waterfront development in the state's poorest city. When he was governor, Jim Florio strongly supported Camden as a site, despite the state commission's preference for Libertry State POark. A case can certainly be made that Camden, with its proximity to the New Jersey's birthplkace, its location in a major metropolitan area and its need for a compliment to the Aquarium, is a better choce than Liberty State Park, which , in the Statue of Liberty, already has a pretty impressive drawing card.

A Camden site could also be made part of a bi-state deal, sympotm,ative of new coooperation supposedly characterizing port activities in the Philadelphia-South Jersey region.

Cliff Jeffries, the executive director of the USS Olympia, the cruiser on which Commodore Dewey made history in the Spanish American War.

The chances of scrapping - what Leon Morrison calls the 'unspeakable' - are remote. The New Jersey's history is too rich. Commissioned in 1943, it saw extensive action in World War II - more than the Missouri, which was chosen for the Japanese surrender cermonies only because Harry Turman was president - in the Korean War, in the Vietnam War and finally in Lebvanon, shelling the hills above Beirut in Aerica's ill-fated and biref atemtp at peace-keeping there.

The big question is whether the Navy will release it in time to be of use to Camden's renaiisance. Whether state officials can be convinced that Camden is the place for the ship to go. And whether funds can be raised early enough and in sufficient quantity to mee thr we Navy's insistence that whomever it turns one of iots ships over to will be maintained and operated in a dignified fashion.

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