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South Jersey

August 12, 1998

Battleship Commission keeping open mind

Courier-Post staff

The idea of tourists strolling along the decks of the battleship USS New Jersey moored on the Camden Waterfront would have been inconceivable just a few weeks ago.

But after members of the USS New Jersey Battleship Commission visited Camden two weeks ago for a tour and presentation, the city has gone from completely out of the running to a serious contender along with Bayonne and Jersey City to be the ship's permanent home.

"I will tell you, I was really impressed (with Camden). It is a tough decision, but we will give everything a fair shake. Everyone is in the running," said Assemblyman Joseph Azzolina, R-Monmouth, chairman of the commission.

Other commissioners have said they were equally impressed and even surprised with the attractiveness of the Camden-Philadelphia Waterfront. They said they intend to give serious consideration to a Camden proposal to bring the USS New Jersey to the Delaware River, near where it was built in 1942 during World War II at the former Philadelphia Naval Shipyard and modernized in 1968.

But Jersey City struck back Friday with a boat tour for commission members of the New York-New Jersey harbor. The tour was part of a second and more elaborate pitch made to the commission in an attempt to knock Camden and Bayonne out of contention.

Jersey City officials revised their proposal, recommending an 800-foot walkway and a people-mover to carry pedestrians to the ship instead of their original idea for ferry service from Liberty Park to reach the ship out in the harbor.

While many commissioners could not help being wowed by the Statue of Liberty, Ellis Island and the New York City skyline as a backdrop for the ship, Azzolina and some others expressed concerns with locating the ship as much as 800 feet offshore. In addition, the chairman clearly was irritated with Jersey City officials for criticizing the Bayonne site during the tour, accusing Jersey City officials of disseminating "false information."

"If you were alongside the dock, you'd have it hands down," Azzolina told Jersey City officials. "But out there on the water, well that's something else."

Early this summer the commission was favoring Bayonne as at least a temporary site for the USS New Jersey to become a floating museum. The USS New Jersey is the largest class of U.S. battleship and is the most highly decorated American warship in history, with 16 battle stars from World War II through the Gulf War.

Bayonne officials made an offer after a preferred Jersey City site in New York Harbor had been deemed unworkable because of costly dredging and concern about regulatory approvals. There were no other sites under consideration until recently.

Sen. John Matheussen, R-Gloucester, Camden County Freeholder Patricia Jones and Camden Mayor Milton Milan intervened in June and persuaded the commission to visit Camden. They attended a daylong presentation with fanfare, financing details, historical facts, a bus and riverboat tour and lunch in sight of the Camden-Philadelphia skyline.

"I think they have become open-minded about this site and will base their decision purely on the merits. Our information is that the commission is not politically partisan at all," Jones said last week. "I think they just never truly thought about the South, and they have now learned what we have to offer. I think ours is the best for the people, accessible, and historically for the ship."

The Home Port Alliance, a coalition of the government and private groups endorsing the Camden proposal, has offered a $4.2 million financial package to tow the ship from its berth in Bremerton, Wash., and dock it at the Beckett Street Marine Terminal owned by the South Jersey Port Corp. This is millions more than any other site has offered.

During the presentation by county, city and port officials, the commission also heard emotional appeals from South Jersey shipbuilders who helped construct the ship in the 1940s, former crew members and other veterans. They heard about the 200-year shipbuilding history of the area and other development plans for the Camden-Philadelphia Waterfront.

The Home Port Alliance is establishing a fund at Commerce Bank to handle contributions to bring the battleship to Camden.

"Some people have offered money, but we have declined to take any money (before a fund is established)," said Phil Rowan, executive director of Camden County Improvement Authority.

The authority is working with the alliance and would finance $3 million of the $4.2 million to build the anchorage and walkway for the ship, said Rowan.

"The private fund-raising effort is separate from that. Now that government money has been earmarked here, our main financial goal is to attract money from the private sector," he said.

The request by Jersey City officials for another look by the commission Friday at a changed proposal for the Liberty State Park area annoyed some battleship commissioners.

"They pulled an 11th hour on us. I can't speak for the other commissioners, but I was kind of upset by that," Eugene Simko said last week. "They already had made a formal presentation last month as an alternative to their original proposal."

Other commissioners said they agreed to meet again with Jersey City only as a "courtesy."

Jersey City officials even pledged to kick in more than $1 million but stopped short of giving a figure to avoid a bidding war.

"There is no more beautiful or better tourist site for the ship in the state or even in the country than at Liberty State Park, upriver from those other great symbols of American freedom: the Statue of Liberty and Ellis Island," said Jersey City Mayor Bret Schundler.

Bayonne wants to dock the ship at the end of the Military Ocean Terminal where the ship was once kept while inactive. It is on a peninsula in lower New York Harbor.

After a summer recess that began this week, Congress is expected to give final approval to a pending resolution that would release the ship from the naval reserve fleet.

Since 1980, the Battleship New Jersey Foundation has raised almost $4 million from donations and the sale of commemorative license plates but has said $7.2 million is needed by the first year of operation.

Joseph Dyer of Pennsville, the commission's only South Jersey member, said he hopes geographic politics will not enter into the site decision because all the other commissioners come from central or northern New Jersey.

After visiting Camden, he concluded the Camden presentation was the front-runner and the most comprehensive of the three, but said he is keeping an "open mind" on the issue.

The commission has not set a date to select the site, but Azzolina said it will happen in Trenton after Labor Day. The recommendation will be made to the Legislature and Gov. Christie Whitman, who has indicated she will abide by the commission's choice.

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