A new battle for the USS New Jersey

USS New Jersey on the Camden waterfront, where it is open for tours. A nonprofit wants to move it to near the Statue of Liberty.
USS New Jersey on the Camden waterfront, where it is open for tours. A nonprofit wants to move it to near the Statue of Liberty. (TOM GRALISH / Staff Photographer)
Posted: March 12, 2012

The USS New Jersey, the most decorated battleship in U.S. history, is facing its biggest fight outside war: to pay its bills and fend off attempts to move it from Camden to North Jersey.

State officials are reviewing the finances of the museum ship's operator, the Home Port Alliance, as it struggles to repay $900,000 remaining on a $1 million bank loan from 2003.

The alliance is also battling efforts by the USS New Jersey Battleship Foundation to move the ship to Liberty State Park, with the Statue of Liberty, Manhattan skyline, and Ellis Island as the backdrop.

"She's not going anywhere," said Philip Rowan, who took over last month from Jim Schuck as CEO of the Home Port Alliance. "I'll use the line that Charlton Heston used: 'They'll take it from my cold, dead hands.' "

"We have a contract with the Navy, and they're happy with what we're doing here," the Camden native said. "Our inspection reports are top-notch, and the ship is open to the public."

But Christopher von Zwehl, president of the USS New Jersey Battleship Foundation, said his nonprofit was working to raise $15 million from donors to dredge a site at Liberty State Park and move the ship there.

A park friends group opposes the plan, citing tourist overcrowding - the same reason the foundation cites in choosing the location.

The Home Port Alliance "has had the ship in the best of times and worst of times and couldn't make it work," said von Zwehl, a member of the USS New Jersey Battleship Commission that helped bring the vessel to the state in 1999. "The amount of money needed is way over their heads."

"It's been a financial disaster in Camden, a forgotten, hulking relic hidden behind the Susquehanna Bank Center," he said.

To head off such talk, the Home Port Alliance is working to get its financial house in order against heavy headwinds - a bad economy and a drop-off in state financial aid.

It received $1.7 million from the state in 2010 and $32,500 last year - "not even one month's electric bill," Schuck said at the time.

In January, the Delaware River Port Authority balked at renewing its guarantee of the historic site's loan for another three years, extending it instead to mid-April.

The DRPA's inspector general is now performing an internal investigation "to make sure we did what we were supposed to do when we guaranteed the loan," agency spokesman Tim Ireland said.

"If the guarantee was not extended, there was the likelihood that the bank would call in the loan and we'd have to pay," he said. "We're not there yet. . . . What everybody wants is that the ship be as sound as possible and that it be able to repay that loan."

The Home Port Alliance has been making interest payments but not paying down the principal, and will likely try to renegotiate the loan, Rowan said.

On Wednesday, Rodney Sadler, who runs the Wiggins Park Marina and who has long been involved in economic-development efforts in Camden, was named chairman of the board of trustees of the Home Port Alliance, replacing John Matheussen, who will remain on the board while continuing as DRPA chief executive officer. Officials said the changeover was routine.

At the same time, von Zwehl has helped initiate another inquiry. The Home Port Alliance hasn't registered as a charity with the New Jersey Division of Consumer Affairs in recent years, and its status is being reviewed for compliance by the state Office of Consumer Protection enforcement section. The alliance receives hundreds of thousands of dollars in contributions, gifts, and grants.

"We have the authority to investigate the charity's activities thoroughly and are currently doing just that," Catherine McLaughlin, supervising investigator in the agency's charities registration section, said in a February letter to von Zwehl.

The N.J. Attorney General's Office also is reviewing concerns about the financial ties between the ship and DRPA that von Zwehl raised in letters late last year to Gov. Christie and others.

"Please be advised that since taking office, this administration has been closely monitoring the minutes of all authorities, including the DRPA, and their actions regarding the use of taxpayer dollars and revenue expenditures," Richard Bagger, Christie's chief of staff, responded to von Zwehl, referring the issue to then-state Attorney General Paula Dow.

"I can confirm that the concerns raised by Mr. von Zwehl were referred to us and directed to the appropriate people here for review," said Peter Aseltine, a spokesman for the Attorney General's Office.

Von Zwehl said two detectives from that office met with him for two hours Friday. "We talked about the finances of the Home Port Alliance, about vendors, contractors, the use of funds, and the relationship with the DRPA. I can't say more than that right now," he said.

In a 2009 IRS filing, the Home Port Alliance reported that Schuck was paid $117,458; marketing director Jack Willard, $94,600; curatorial affairs official Jason Hall, $64,444; and controller Ruth Keser, $66,731. In 2010, Schuck earned slightly less. Citing a change in IRS rules, the nonprofit did not disclose the others' salaries.

Rowan said he was not aware of inquiries by state officials and was checking on the status of the ship's registration as a charity.

Rowan, who took over the helm at the alliance on Feb. 7, said officials would find it had done the best it could with what it had.

Rowan, a founding member of the alliance, saw the New Jersey pass through the Panama Canal on its way to Camden. He has a staff of about 40 full- and part-time workers and hundreds of volunteers but needs more money. This year, $350,000 will be spent on maintenance, $600,000 on utilities, and $180,000 on insurance.

"It will cost $8 million for redecking with teak," Rowan said. "Teak is expensive and hard to get.

"We would also like to paint the hull," he said. "There are a lot of things we could do. We could easily spend $40 million."

As a leader in the community who served as CEO of the New Jersey Urban Development Corp. and executive director of the Camden County Improvement Authority, Rowan sees the battleship overcoming its financial problems and becoming a more popular Camden attraction.

"We have challenges, but we are working through them," he said. "I'm drafting a new business plan based on the business we have coming in."

Rowan said the ship had been pulling in income from its overnight-campers program and from special events, and had redoubled efforts to reach out to donors.

"Our budget is a little over $3 million and we're reducing it," he said. "Between what we bring in and our conservative fund-raising plan, we hope to meet our target of a $2.6 million budget."

The alliance also plans to apply for part of the $2.1 million in state aid set aside in Gov. Christie's latest budget to help run historic sites, including the battleship, the Old Barracks Museum in Trenton, and Morvin House in Princeton.

"It's hard to predict what slice would be reasonable to expect," Rowan said.

In the meantime, the ship is trying to attract more visitors, including considering a $5 discount coupon on tickets. The ship drew 200,000 visitors in 2002, its first full year of operation, and now draws about 100,000 each year, according to Willard.

The talk of moving the ship is simply unrealistic, Rowan said. Visitors still come to see the great warship's 16-inch guns, feared by enemies from World War II through combat actions in Korea, Vietnam, and Beirut, Lebanon.

"We have a beautiful location on the Delaware River near the Philadelphia Naval Shipyard, where the USS New Jersey was built," he said. "I was born and raised in Camden, and it is no less sacred ground than" Liberty State Park.

"We're aggressively countering their [foundation's] maneuvers," he said. "They have crossed the line" by confusing people who might donate to the ship at its Camden location.

The foundation "is fund-raising for a location that doesn't want them," Willard said of the opposition from the Friends of Liberty State Park. "There is no way they will put it there."

Von Zwehl said the move to a site with more tourist traffic was inevitable. "Nothing can save the ship in Camden," he said. "At the end of the day, it's all about business, generating revenue, and attracting visitors.

"They [the Home Port Alliance] have done a passionate job, and that passion will move with the ship," he said. "This isn't an issue of North vs. South. The ship is bigger than that. It's important to New Jersey and the whole country."

In the end, the battleship "belongs to us," said Rowan, who plans to meet with von Zwehl on Friday. "They're trying to sink it in Camden. But we own it and it's not moving."


Contact Edward Colimore

at 856-779-3833 or ecolimore@phillynews.com.


 

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