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South Jersey

Friday, July 31, 1998

Old warships buoy economy of host cities

Courier-Post staff

Now that there are no battles to fight, warships are cruising for a peaceful place to stay put.

Camden is hoping the New Jersey will come home to the Waterfront. But are there enough prospective visitors to float a battleship?

The answer is a snappy "aye, aye, sir" from other cities that have transformed old ships into new tourist attractions. There are more than 1,170 historic vessels open to the public in the United States, says Theresa Randall, executive director of a committee working to bring the aircraft carrier Midway to San Diego.

"There are a lot of Navy families, a lot of people who are interested in history," Randall says.

The USS Lexington - affectionately christened Lady Lex - might be the queen of the big ships. More than 300,000 admirers paid $9 each last year to walk the decks of the aircraft carrier, at sea for an unprecedented 49 years and now docked in Corpus Christi, Texas.

Lady Lex has been such a smash that Corpus Christi commissioned other maritime attractions - precise replicas of the Nina, Pinta and Santa Maria.

It costs $2.8 million a year to maintain the Lady Lex, but the 910-foot vessel is still turning a profit.

"People who live in the middle of the country don't get to see ships too often," says Capt. Frank Montesano, the Hackensack native who directs the museum. "Still, the New Jersey should be a huge attraction when she goes home because the state has a big population and battleships are a real draw."

But not everyone is attracted to the notion of providing a home for a gigantic ship with equally large expenses. Supporters of the New Jersey estimate it will cost more than $3 million a year to maintain the vessel.

"I figure they could find better things to do with the money," says Sandra Perry, who lives in Fairview, a section of Camden built to house shipyard workers during World War I. "Camden has filthy streets, cracked pavements and people eating out of trash cans."

Wilmington, N.C., home of the USS North Carolina, boasts a few beaches, a modest aquarium and a sleepy Civil War fort. That city brought the battleship from dry dock in Brooklyn in 1961 at a cost of $300,000.

Thirty-seven years later, it costs $2.2 million a year to keep the ship afloat. Visits dropped off slightly, to 230,000 last year, but it's enough to pay the bills.

Capt. David Scheu, who directs the museum, expects the North Carolina will attract visitors for years to come. But he thinks it's important for the big ships to give one another a wide berth.

"Alameda (Calif.) already has the aircraft carrier Hornet," says Scheu, who served on the New Jersey. "And now San Francisco wants to move the Iowa right across from there. That might be too much competition."

More often, ships compete for dollars. Witness a crusade to save the USS Olympia, the flagship that carried Commodore George Dewey into Manila Bay in 1898.

In 1954, a group of volunteers from Philadelphia saved the Olympia from being sold for scrap. They then set about painting and scrubbing the ship, the sole surviving combat vessel from the Spanish- American War.

But the work was too extensive for the volunteers to handle. And they didn't have the money to pay for restoration.

The stalwarts of the USS Olympia Association toiled in vain for more than 25 years before the Independence Seaport Museum came to the rescue in 1996.

Through grants, corporate giving and private donations, the museum raised $5 million to paint the 344-foot ship, repair its deck and upgrade the electrical system.

"The Olympia has become a huge draw for us," says Cathy Engel, spokeswoman for the seaport museum.

"It's worked out beautifully for everyone."

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