February 26, 2010

PORTLAND BOUND?

MATT WICKENHEISER

— By

click image to enlarge

Visiting guests and dignitaries aboard the USS John F. Kennedy ride the massive elevator that is normally used to carry the airplanes from the hangar to the top deck in this U.S. Navy archive photo from September 1987.

Photo courtesy U.S. Navy

click image to enlarge

The USS John F. Kennedy arrives at Naval Air Station Pensacola, Fla., for a port visit after completing exercises in the Gulf of Mexico in this Navy archive photo from March 2004. The Maine-based JFK for ME has advanced to the second phase of a competitive process to bring the aging aircraft carrier to Portland Harbor as a museum and tourist attraction. Currently, one other unidentified group is also in the running to get the ship.

Photo courtesy U.S. Navy

Staff Writer

A Maine group has passed the first test in its effort to bring the decommissioned aircraft carrier USS John F. Kennedy to Portland Harbor as a museum.

Three groups submitted initial applications, according to the Navy, and two advanced to the second phase of the process.

One is Maine-based JFK for ME, which has formed a nonprofit organization called the USS John F. Kennedy Museum to pursue the carrier. The identity and location of the second group are unknown, and the Navy is not releasing any information, citing the competitive process.

The initial application, about 25 pages long, addressed the Navy's questions and concerns, said Dana Slipp, one of the Maine group's founders. It included a letter of support from the city of Portland, drafted after a 9-0 City Council vote.

''They know we understand the complexity and enormity of bringing a ship like this to Portland,'' Slipp said.

The group has until next February to complete its proposal, which will have to include many more details, including a business plan that addresses marketing, income sources, museum plans, waterfront facilities and environmental considerations.

One or both of the groups could advance into phase three, which calls for further plans regarding mooring the ship, towing it from its berth in Philadelphia, operating the museum and other aspects. The Navy could pick one of the groups to take ownership of the carrier, send it to the scrapyard, reopen the process for new groups, or choose other options.

Slipp said there are many questions ahead, and a lot of work. ''This is going to take a lot of money. We're going to have to have a huge fundraising effort -- grass-roots, local corporate, national corporate,'' he said.

It will cost millions to get through the process, get the ship here, refurbish it and operate it as a museum.

''But we're prepared to have ongoing fundraising to make sure it is self-sustaining,'' Slipp said. ''We felt, and still feel, that this is an opportunity for the city, the community, the area and the state for increased tourism, to be able to promote the history of the ship.''

Slipp estimated that the carrier could provide more than 100 permanent jobs, plus at least 100 to 200 workers to do maintenance, upkeep and restoration.

The group, with about 10 people, is looking to attract additional members who see the potential of the ship and how it could benefit the region, Slipp said.

The ship is 1,052 feet long and 252 feet wide at its widest point. Its deepest draft is 33.6 feet. It could carry 70 combat aircraft and had more than 4,600 personnel on board. It was commissioned in 1968, named after the late president and christened in 1967 by his daughter, 9-year-old Caroline Kennedy. It was decommissioned in 2007.

The group has ideas for making the ship a year-round attraction for Maine. Part of it could be a convention center; it could include a restaurant. In the winter, there could be an ice rink on the deck. Home run derbys could be hosted on the deck as well, Slipp suggested.

He said two key groups are supporting his organization's efforts. The USS JFK Association is composed of former crew members. The Sunset Tomcats is composed of the air wing division that served on the ship.

Bob Haner, founder of the USS JFK Association, said, ''All of us feel that the New England area -- Portland or Boston -- is the best place for the ship, because of the Kennedy family tie-in.''

Haner was on the ship for five years, through the first Persian Gulf War. He was on the ship when it visited Portland in 1989.

''I know what a great town Portland is -- it was one of the two best port visits I ever had,'' said Haner, who lives in Florida.

Having the ship in Portland would be ideal, said Rick ''Fitz'' Fitzgerald, another founder of the Maine group. The ship should become a museum because of its namesake, he said.

''The name of the ship alone supports its ability to become a museum,'' Fitzgerald said. ''There's no better catch of an aircraft carrier out there.''

Last year, Boston City Councilor Stephen Murphy suggested pursuing the ship, because Massachusetts is the home of the Kennedys. But Seth McCoy, director of policy and communications for the Boston City Council, said a nonprofit had to put together the proposal; Murphy couldn't.

Murphy hadn't heard of any group putting together a proposal, McCoy said.

The John F. Kennedy Presidential Library and Museum in Boston did not submit a proposal, and wasn't approached by any Massachusetts groups looking to pursue the ship, the museum's spokeswoman said.

John Robinson, who formed a Facebook page to support bringing the ship to Massachusetts, said he hasn't heard of any proposals. His page has almost 1,000 members.

''Boston seems to have really dropped the ball,'' he said.

Robinson said he would be ''thrilled if it went to Portland, because that means it's not going to scrap'' and it's staying in the region.

But none of that means Boston -- or another Massachusetts community -- isn't the home of the other group bidding for the ship.

Portland Mayor Nicholas Mavodones Jr. said the carrier would appear to be a good addition to Portland. ''It's another positive thing for Portland and the Greater Portland area,'' he said.

Although the City Council supported the local group's effort with a 9-0 vote, all members acknowledged there will be further questions, including the ship's impact on the waterfront, environmental concerns and financing questions, Mavodones said.

He said feedback from residents has been evenly split -- some think it's a bad idea, and some are enthusiastic.

Steven Scharf, head of the Portland Taxpayers' Association, spoke against the concept at the City Council meeting last month. He reiterated his concerns Wednesday.

''It is never going to be the thing that solves our problems, and I can only see it causing many more problems and costing the taxpayers of Portland and the taxpayers of Maine many millions of dollars in both direct costs and problem costs,'' he said.

Ship museums operate in other communities. Fall River, Mass., has Battleship Cove, which is home to ships including the USS Massachusetts.

New York City has the Intrepid Sea, Air & Space Museum. It opened in 1982 and has had more than 10 million visitors. It hosts the carrier USS Intrepid, a submarine and 30 aircraft.

According to the museum's latest financial report, it took in $16.2 million in operating revenue in 2006 and had operating expenses of $18.8 million. It also had $17.3 million in non-operating revenue and support of over-expenses, covering the operating deficit.

Frank Lennon, president of the USS Saratoga Museum Foundation, said his group has worked for 12 years to bring that aircraft carrier to Rhode Island. It took 14 years to make the Midway a museum in San Diego, he said.

The biggest battles in Rhode Island concern environmental issues, economic development, and questions over the best and highest use of the deep-water berth -- ''all the same questions that I'm sure will be raised up there'' in Portland, Lennon said.

''You've got to have staying power and you've got to be able to raise money,'' he said. ''We have already raised and spent probably a million and a half dollars, just to get it to this point.''

Staff Writer Matt Wickenheiser can be contacted at 791-6316 or at:

mwickenheiser@pressherald.comHere is a graphic comparison of the USS John F. Kennedy and other vessels that have navigated Portland Harbor.A BIG IMPRESSION

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