November 04, 1999
Shiny new riverfront awaits the arrival of a centerpiece
By EILEEN STILWELL
When the battleship USS New Jersey sails up the Delaware River next week to the former Philadelphia Naval Shipyard, where it was built in 1942, it will return to a dramatically different waterway.
Not only is the water cleaner and the air fresher, but the overall atmosphere also is less gritty, as tourism fills the gap left by the exodus of manufacturers along the river.
If the Navy chooses Camden over Bayonne as the best place to transform the USS New Jersey into a maritime museum, the famous ship could be settling into a millennium neighborhood with a psychedelic bowling center, ice skating rinks, a driving range, nightly laser shows, fleets of pleasure boaters and a string of lively bars and restaurants.
When “Big J” made its maiden voyage, the Benjamin Franklin and Tacony-Palmyra bridges were its only overhead obstacles between Camden and the Atlantic Ocean.
Then, the Ben Franklin was merely a bridge. Today, it supports the PATCO Hi-peedline and some 10,000 daily round-trip commuters. By next summer, it also will be the backdrop for a sound and light show that will spill over into the river on barges equipped with supplemental light screens.
By 2001, the same is expected to support an aerial tram that will carry tourists between the Camden and Philadelphia waterfronts. From 180 feet above the water, riders in gondola-
type cars will have a spectacular view of the Navy's most decorated vessel.
Tourism is about equal on both sides of the river these days, according to Thomas Corcoran, president of Cooper's Ferry Development Association, which is responsible for developing a 1.25-mile ribbon of Camden's waterfront between the Ben Franklin Bridge and the E-Centre.
Camden attracts nearly 1.2 million tourists each year to the New Jersey State Aquarium, the Children's Garden, the E-Centre and Wiggins Park for fireworks and concerts.
Philadelphia attracts about the same number to festivals at Penn's Landing and the Independence Seaport Museum. Both sides have such elaborate plans for the future that a World World II veteran who made the battlewagon's original voyage might not recognize the Camden terminus of the Delaware River.
Certainly, they would be shocked to hear the crack of a baseball bat in Camden or soundtracks from a 20-screen AMC movie theater at Penn's Landing.
Stephen R. Schilling, president and CEO of the Voorhees-based Quaker Group real estate and construction company, plans to build a stadium for his Atlantic League team on waterfront land formerly occupied by the Campbell Soup Co. Planning appears to be nearing completion and construction is slated to begin next spring. Schilling wants to toss the first ball in spring 2001.
Next to the stadium, a developer wants to build an entertainment center for jocks.
Kravco Co., which developed the King of Prussia Mall, including The Court and The Plaza, and the Deptford Mall, among others, is trying to arrange financing to build a multi-tiered project, tentatively called SportsPort. This would include two ice skating rinks, a driving range that parallels the river, a fitness center and a 400-lane bowling alley where the action begins when the lights go out. Bowling balls and pins will illuminate the alleys in psychedelic colors.
Times change. When the Black Dragon, another pet name for the USS New Jersey, left the Delaware for the Great War, it left a top secret, highly industrialized area. When it returns, a two-story FAO Schwarz that sells toy battleships will be located nearby at Penn's Landing. Next door, families will stream into the newly appointed Please Touch Museum, one of the largest children's museums in the country.
Other tenants committed to Penn's Landing for a 2002 opening are Borders Book Store, Jillian's, Cache, Versace, Steve Madden Shoes, Ann Taylor Loft and Pottery Barn.
Preparing to dock an 887-foot, 45,000-ton ship in a narrow portion of the Delaware River with an appropriate visitors center and parking is no easy matter. Nor is it cheap.
More than likely, it will take close to a year from the time the Navy chooses Camden or Bayonne to ready a site.
So far, the Camden County Improvement Authority has promised $1 million, the Camden County Board of Chosen Freeholders, $3.2 million; and the state of New Jersey and the Economic Development Authority, $8 million, to help the ship make the transition from the former shipyard to the Camden side.
It will be moored on an angle into the river on a permanent site between the E-Centre and Berth 1 of the South Jersey Port Corp., a quasi-state agency.