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South Jersey

Saturday, August 1, 1998

Camden freeholders pledge $3.2 million

By Brian Porco, Courier-Post

DELIVERING MESSAGE: Russ Homan of Cherry Hill cruises the Delaware in his speedboat.

Courier-Post staff

CAMDEN - South Jersey gave the Battleship New Jersey Commission more to ponder than words and pomp Friday during a visit to view the Waterfront here as a potential museum site for the USS New Jersey.

While commissioners were being treated like celebrities, Camden County officials announced they will commit $3.2 million to bring the battleship here. A berth on the Delaware River would place the decorated ship near the Philadelphia Naval Shipyard, where it was built and twice refurbished. Thousands who worked on the ship lived in New Jersey.

Also Friday, the Delaware River Port Authority promised to make a significant financial contribution in a get-the-ship campaign whose theme has become "From Birthplace to Berthplace."

Hundreds of cheering boosters turned out on a gray and dreary morning to greet commissioners at the Camden Waterfront. Just as the boat pulled into shore after taking officials on a tour, clouds parted and sunlight streamed onto the promenade.

The Camden Empowerment Zone has pledged $1 million of its federal dollars to berth the most decorated battleship in U.S. history, provided the commission selects Camden. The Navy also must approve the site chosen as home for the only U.S. warship to serve in four wars - World War II, Korea, Vietnam and the Persian Gulf.

Camden County Freeholder Pat Jones, whose announcement of the county's $3.2 million contribution drew applause from the commissioners, said the money would come from a financial arrangement with Camden County Improvement Authority. Jones is co-chairman with state Sen. John Matheussen, R-Gloucester, of the Home Port Alliance, a coalition of government and private agencies working to secure the battleship for South Jersey.

Camden has been competing with Bayonne and Jersey City to become the permanent home of the ship, now anchored in the naval reserve fleet in Washington state, but soon to be released by Congress for donation as a museum.

"We put our all into this presentation and we appreciate that you gave us the opportunity to show what this area has to offer and the special passion people here have for the ship," Matheussen told commissioners.

Later in the day, commission members said they were impressed with the Waterfront and the financial commitment. The four-hour visit highlighted not only the area's attractions, but the Camden-Philadelphia shipbuilding tradition and ties many area families have to the ship.

"I want to congratulate you on a good job and fine planning. We have a tough decision and now you've made the decision tougher," said the commission chairman, Assemblyman Joseph Azzolina, R-Monmouth, who promised a decision by the end of August.

During a river cruise, Azzolina and 11 other commissioners viewed a proposed docking site for the USS New Jersey between the Beckett Street Marine Terminal and the Blockbuster-Sony Entertainment Centre.

They also visited the nearby Philadelphia Naval Shipyard and ate lunch on the 11th floor of the port authority building with a direct view of the Camden Waterfront and the Philadelphia skyline and Penn's Landing across the river.

The commission received almost presidential treatment. "Welcome Battleship Commission" signs greeted them as they came into Camden. "Bring the Battleship Home" signs were almost everywhere, including on the Walt Whitman Bridge as they approached it on board the Liberty Belle cruise ship. They were saluted by a Marine honor guard and bagpipers when they landed.

Tugboats, carefully spaced several hundred feet apart, each carried several letters that together spelled out "USS New Jersey" and occupied the approximate place in the river where the ship would rest. A fireboat welcomed them with an aerial spray as they sailed upriver from the Philadelphia Naval Business Center, the former naval shipyard where they saw the USS New Jersey's sister ship, the USS Iowa.

"This is my first visit and I am very impressed. There's nothing like a visual presentation and they've done a wonderful job. We'll be keeping an open mind in considering what you have to offer," commission member Gloria Patrizio said as she got her first glimpse of the Waterfront.

To better showcase the land view of the battleship, South Jersey Port Corp. Executive Director Joe Balzano said, it would be docked at an angle with the stern closer to the dock and the bow skewed toward the west.

He put the cost of preparing a berth at $3 million, which would include $1 million for installation of four pilings, a walkway to the ship and for insurance. While the channel is deep enough for the New Jersey, any dredging needed would be done under an existing arrangement between the South Jersey Port Corp. and the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers at no additional cost, Balzano said.

"We could complete this by May 1, 1999," he projected.

The site is also near Wiggins Waterfront Park, a NJ Transit light rail station to be built by 2001 with direct service to Trenton and an over-the-river aerial tramway expected to be operational sometime after the year 2000. It is also adjacent to the New Jersey State Aquarium and the future site of a museum of recorded sound, a children's garden and a proposed minor league baseball park.

The Aquarium attracts a half million visitors a year.

Philadelphia attracts more than 3 million visitors a year, a figure expected to triple with the addition of a new family entertainment center on that side of the river.

"We're excited about things happening on the Waterfront. If (Camden is) selected, this authority will participate in a financial way, and I am authorized to say this on behalf of the governor," said DRPA Vice Chairman Glen Paulsen, whose father worked at the shipyard.

Assembly Speaker Jack Collins, R-Salem, whose dad also worked at the shipyard, joined in the pitch for the ship, saying the Delaware Valley is its real home.

Camden Mayor Milton Milan asked the commission not to be misled by reports they may have heard about crime in Camden.

"We have millions of visitors on the Waterfront and there has never been so much as one incident (there), and crime is down 11 percent in the city," Milan told commissioners.

Joseph Dyer of Pennsville, the commission's only South Jersey member, said, "The general consensus among the commissioners was they were pleasantly surprised with what they saw. And the (county) money didn't hurt one bit.

"The site in Camden seems to be better than anywhere because the ship would be the most prominent, but I will stay open-minded," Dyer said. "The Bayonne site is not in the tourists' way and the metropolitan New York harbor already has the (aircraft) carrier Intrepid as a maritime museum."

Commissioner Eugene Simko of Middletown, said he was amazed at the renaissance of the Philadelphia-Camden Waterfront, which he called a "really well-kept secret." He said the presentation will make a decision more difficult, adding that he anticipates "intense deliberation."

"We saw the enthusiasm of the Camden area. It was impressive the way the ship would be displayed," added commissioner Stuart Chalkey.

Some commissioners expect to attend an updated presentation next week by Jersey City officials at Liberty State Park, but an exact date has not been set.

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