Battleship New Jersey still afloat despite sea of financial cutbacks

During this week of Independence Day festivities, the most decorated battleship in United States history will be one of the best spots to watch fireworks. Folks can witness celebratory pyrotechnics from the deck of the Battleship New Jersey, affectionately known as “Big J”, this Saturday as part of Camden’s Waterfront Freedom Festival.

The event is one of many the 70 year-old battleship is hoping will bring in tourism dollars.

In the competition for entertainment and education dollars among Philadelphia-area attractions, the battleship New Jersey isn’t seen as a top family vacation stop. “The challenge is to get moms with minivans,” said Philip Rowan, President and CEO of the Home Port Alliance for the USS New Jersey, Inc., which oversees the battleship museum and memorial.

And like most septuagenarians, the 887-foot battleship has seen better times.

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It costs $3.5 million yearly to maintain the ship, Rowan divulged. Just to repaint the ship’s hull above the water line – a project to be done later this year – will cost $300,000, he said.

Until recently, the organization could count on state aid for half of the funding need to keep the ship afloat. That changed in 2011, when the battleship received no money from the state, save for $907,000 from the previous fiscal year, Rowan said.

The organization put together a five-year plan to become self-sufficient and, in doing so, restored some of the lost state aid. To help pay for utilities alone, “Big J” received $600,000 in 2012 and $400,000 in the first half of this year, but those amounts still fell short of the $1.75 million the battleship used to get, Rowan noted.

And just in time for a new fiscal year beginning this month, it was announced that the battleship will receive $1.4 million in funding as part of the state budget which passed last week.

Vying for visitors

When the USS New Jersey first opened as a waterfront museum in 2001, it drew 200,000 visitors in its mission to honor vets, preserve history and educate the public. Today, the battleship brings in half that number.

The ship still attracts hundreds daily through visiting school groups and a 10 year-old overnight encampment program is its most profitable attraction. Rowan said the goal is to boost walk-up admissions to 100,000 within five years. To attract more tourism, the organization is opening up more areas of the battleship which were previously off-limits to the public.

New this year is the Turrett II exhibit, which gives visitors an opportunity to see and simulate operating the ship’s number two gun turret.

Next year the ship plans to open a 400 foot corridor which connects all three turrets. By 2015, the museum plans to open the engine and boiler rooms to the public.

The tourism push in the museum’s early years was towards World War II and Korean War veterans, said Jack Willard, the Home Port Alliance’s vice president of marketing. However, many of the vets who served in those two wars are now gone. Veterans from the ship’s other two commissions, Vietnam War and in Lebanon, are aging.

The need to keep the museum relevant for a younger generation has led to a greater emphasis on science and technology, in addition to the history component, Willard said.

With gate tours accounting for only half of the ship’s 42,000 annual visitors, the ship relies on special events to make up the rest.

“Big J” has a liquor license, allowing it to host special events like the Annual Garden State Craft Brewers Guild Beer Festival and this week’s Freedom Festival fantail barbecues. Willard says as a non-profit the revenue which comes from hosting special events is important and does not detract from the ship’s mission.

Special events give the casual observer a reason to come aboard, which always includes a tour of the ship before heading to the party. “It all adds to the package,” he said.

Looking Ahead

In striving to make the ship more convenient for guests, a new VIP parking lot was open last month along Clinton Street. The $10 fee lot offers visitors an closer alternative to the S. Delaware Avenue parking lot and its complimentary shuttle service. Clinton Street is also set to be renamed Battleship Blvd. later this year.

Longer term development of the waterfront by the Coopers Ferry Partnership could see an eventual development of a 36,000 square foot office building which would feature a ground floor restaurant, offering a nearby dining option for hungry tourists.

Camden won the intrastate fight to host “Big J” as a tourist attraction in 2000, but there is still a push by some to relocate the battleship upstate to Bayonne.

Besides the sentimentality of returning a ship back to the river where she was built, there is a practical consideration as well. The Delaware River is a fresh water harbor, as opposed to the salt water of the Hudson, which would eat away at the hull. Despite the staggering costs, the ship remains a key part of Camden’s waterfront revitalization plan.

There are several historic ships docked on the Delaware, making the region a unique maritime attraction, Rowan noted. This September, the battleship will join the Independence Seaport Museum and the Olympia to host the 2013 Annual Conference of the Historic Naval Ships’ Association, an international convention which is anticipated to boost recognition. The ship is one of the only four Iowa-class battleships ever to be built.

Keeping the memory alive

For the over 300 active volunteers – most of whom are veterans, keeping the Battleship New Jersey as a historical artifact is vital to ensuring a younger generation understands and appreciates the war time experiences which not only affected the 55,000 men who served aboard, but also the ship’s role in shaping world history.

“Most of the time, they’re thoroughly impressed,” said William Vets, the ship’s docent supervisor.

Event details

Battleship New Jersey Blast! will feature a barbecue on the fantail, live music, animals from the Philadelphia Zoo on Wheels, and face painting, Saturday, July 6 from 6 p.m. to 10 p.m. Tickets prices are $10 for general admission and $62 for a VIP Package. The Adventure Aquarium Waterfront Fireworks Spectacular will light the sky above the Delaware River on Saturday evening around 9 p.m.

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