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South Jersey

Friday, October 9, 1998

Battleship fight goes to Congress

Gannett News Service

WASHINGTON - The battle over where to berth the historic USS New Jersey intensified Thursday, as supporters of a Camden site argued at a Capitol Hill hearing with another faction favoring Bayonne.

The ship, the nation's most decorated ever, is expected to be sent home to its namesake state as a museum, but Bayonne, Camden and Jersey City are competing for the rights to host it. Camden County Freeholder Patricia Jones, state Sen. John Matheussen, R-Gloucester, and Jersey City officials attended the hearing.

"I will disclose my bias from the outset," Rep. Rob Andrews, D-N.J., whose South Jersey district includes Camden, testified before a House national security subcommittee. "The city of Camden is the right place" for the ship.

Andrews cited several reasons, including easier and less-costly maintenance because Camden is the only freshwater port among the three. He also pointed out historic ties because the ship was built at the nearby Philadelphia Naval Shipyard.

In addition, the Camden area has offered a financial package of $4.2 million from the county freeholders and the Federal Empowerment Zone Board. Neither of the other two cities has committed a comparable sum of money.

The issue is shaping up as a geographic battle, pitting South Jersey supporters of Camden against North Jersey backers of Bayonne or Jersey City.

Rep. Jim Saxton, R-N.J., a National Security Committee member whose South Jersey district borders Andrews' district, in a statement Thursday called Camden "a very suitable location" for the ship. He expressed concern over lack of consideration for a Camden site because only one battleship commission member was from South Jersey. "I have been assured the Navy process will be objective for all applicants," he said.

The South Jersey congressmen said they believe that the towing of the ship from Bremerton, Wash., can be expedited so that the ship can traverse the Panama Canal before the United States relinquishes control of the canal to Panama on Jan. 1, 2000.

Another witness at Thursday's hearing, state Assemblyman Joseph Azzolina, said in written testimony that Bayonne was the preferable site. He cited its modern dock, nearby parking for up to 700 vehicles and proximity to the New York metropolitan area.

"We are before this congressional subcommittee today to make sure that the Battleship New Jersey goes to the most suitable site on the New Jersey waterfront," Azzolina said. "This mighty warrior deserves nothing less than our very best cooperative efforts.

"We may never be able to get the ship if it's not moved by 1999," said Azzolina. "Anywhere it goes (in New Jersey), if it doesn't work we can move it somewhere else."

The New Jersey Battleship Commission, an advisory group chaired by Azzolina, voted Sept. 10 to recommend the ship go to Bayonne.

But a coalition of South Jersey battleship supporters is fighting that recommendation, and have vowed to take their case directly to the Navy.

Andrews, Saxton, and Rep. Frank LoBiondo, R-N.J., who is from Vineland, expressed dismay at the commission's recommendation.

At Thursday's hearing, Rep. Mike Pappas, R-N.J., a committee member who was one of the key players in pushing legislation through Congress to send the battleship to New Jersey, tried to act as peacemaker.

Pappas, who is from Central Jersey, said he was concerned that any "differences of opinion" over where the ship goes in New Jersey could hurt the ongoing effort to bring the ship to the state.

In an interview Wednesday, Andrews said it is up to the secretary of the Navy to decide where the ship will go, with a role for Congress, too.

"The ship is federal property, and it is federal law that dictates how the property may be disposed of," Andrews said.

Andrews said he would expect a final decision on where the ship will go by the fourth quarter of 1999, with the actual deeding of the ship in 2000.

In written testimony submitted for Thursday's hearing, Deputy Assistant Secretary of the Navy Michael C. Hammes detailed the procedures for the Navy's Ship Donation Program, including six months for sites to apply to berth the ship, an additional six months for the Navy to work with applicants on their proposals, and a three-month period to analyze the applications.

The Navy expects that all three sites will submit applications.

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