By CAROL COMEGNO
For the past six years, Joseph Balzano has fought like a pit bull to bring the USS New Jersey to Camden knowing that a win could lead to his demise.
If the battleship brings a projected 150,000 tourists a year to the Camden Waterfront, his job as executive director of the South Jersey Port Corp., a quasi-state agency that operates two commercial piers in Camden, could be threatened.
Tourism and cargo don't always mix like pretzels and beer, though Balzano believes the Delaware River is large enough to accommodate maritime and recreational needs.
Still, tourism gobbles up land, whether it be a baseball field, concert hall or battleship. Before Camden began to develop its Waterfront, the port dominated the area with its hulking ships, five-story scrap heaps, piles of black petrocoke and ramshackle warehouses. Now, Balzano -- whose port is no longer the Waterfront's only child -- has to share.
To make room for the 887-foot vessel, the port donated riparian rights of prime land from his beloved Beckett Street terminal to berth the ship.
On a recent walk up the brand-new pier, he said he might try to persuade his board to kick in a bit more land to create a buffer between tourists and longshoremen working on ships at the adjacent terminal.
This summer, the port leased space to the Tweeter Center for extra parking on those concert nights when the Camden Riversharks also played ball at Campbell's Field.
Balzano said he pursued the USS New Jersey because he believes it will be good for Camden and because underneath that dockworker swagger is a man who values history.
As chairman of the construction committee of the Home Port Alliance that governs the ship, Balzano controlled renovation of the ship and the creation of temporary and permanent piers. His agency also provided security to the battleship.
The ship's $21 million budget is actually larger than last year's revenues for the South Jersey Port Corp., which came in at $18 million.
"This is the most delightful project I've ever been involved in," said Balzano, his voice lower and huskier than usual from exhaustion and stress of trying to meet deadlines for the project and satisfy a multitude of interests.
"The ship is a magnet. It brings lots of visibility to a little city called Camden and its most important asset, the river."
He is proud of the new 200-foot long pier that he expects people will want to be married there or celebrate other joyous occasions.
Balzano emerged as a heavyweight in a crowded field of people pursuing the nation's most decorated warship for Camden because he's a bona fide river rat.
"Somehow I became the link between the Democrats and Republicans, the military and civilians, engineers and laborers," said Balzano. "Hopefully, not the weakest link."
A good listener, Balzano recalled one debate between the military flank of the 15-member Home Port Alliance, which is in charge of the New Jersey, and Thomas Corcoran, president of Cooper's Ferry Development Association.
"Capt. (David) McGuigan (former president of the Alliance) accused Corcoran of wanting to build a Disney World, instead of an accurate picture of history, and Corcoran said the captain wanted a mausoleum instead of a tourist attraction," said Balzano, amused by the disparate points of view.
Balzano has said that without McGuigan's vision and expertise in preparing the successful application to get the ship, there would be no ship in Camden.
Working in a group was a challenge for Balzano, who runs the Camden port, some say, like an emperor. What he did like was sharing the wealth of praise.
"A lot of these contractors painters, plumbers, welders didn't make much money for their work, but they wanted the job because they knew it would look good on their resumes. Working on a ship like the New Jersey must mean you're at the top of your field."
Balzano's connection to the city and military runs deep.
Born in Camden 67 years ago, he followed his father and grandfather to the docks in 1951. He had hoped to join the Army during the Korean War, but was rejected for health reasons. Balzano walks with a severe limp due to a childhood infection that settled in his hip and leg.
"I was the only one left on the corner and it felt horrible," he said recently, his eyes welling with tears at a disappointment he has never reconciled. "I think I was looking for something macho to do to prove myself so I became a longshoreman."
Balzano worked his way up to the top job which he has held since 1988. Then, he set his sights on bringing a museum ship to the river and his first choice was the USS New Jersey. Finally, it's all come together.
"I'm happy and proud to be part of this. I just happened to be in the right spot at the right time," said Balzano. "The victory is very sweet."
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