Battleship Down

The USS Iowa was once considered a lock as a San Francisco tourist attraction. So why is the historic warship rusting in Suisun Bay?

Stephens, her husband and a financial analyst at the Federal Reserve Bank in San Francisco, is no less enthusiastic. After screening a 13-minute film touting the couple's vision for the ship, he confidently allows as how the Historic Ships Memorial at Pacific Square, the nonprofit entity he and his wife control, could take possession of the Iowa by January 2009, "and even earlier if certain things work out."

Stephens predicts that the ship will draw 400,000 tourists a year to Mare Island, and could attract 700,000 once Vallejo's long-range plans with Lennar Corp. to redevelop the abandoned shipyard as a commercial and residential hub take root. "That ship is worth its weight in gold," he says.

It's a view that isn't universally shared.

Aerial view of the ship firing its guns during a training exercise.
Aerial view of the ship firing its guns during a training exercise.
The Iowa was towed into Suisan Bay in 2001.
Kit Bonner
The Iowa was towed into Suisan Bay in 2001.

Of the other three Iowa-class battleships the Navy has donated to private entities, only the USS Missouri, docked near the USS Arizona Memorial at Pearl Harbor in Honolulu, is doing well. The USS New Jersey, which has been berthed at Camden, N.J., across the river from Philadelphia, since 2001, has struggled to draw visitors. And the USS Wisconsin, anchored at Norfolk, Va., is barely holding its own as an attraction.

"Experience suggests that military ships, as wonderful as they are, don't draw huge numbers of people unless they're located at the heart of a tourist destination — like San Francisco," says Scott McGaugh, marketing director at the highly successful San Diego Aircraft Carrier Museum, home to the USS Midway.

Bob Fish, a trustee at the USS Hornet Museum at the former Alameda Naval Air Station, agrees. "Do I think enough people will drive out of their way to see the Iowa if it were in, say, Vallejo, or Stockton, to make it viable? I don't think so, and I don't know any knowledgeable person who does," he says. "The only logical place to put the Iowa is San Francisco, and, unfortunately, the city didn't appear to have a lot of enthusiasm for it."

He offers the Hornet as Exhibit A.

Opened amid much fanfare several years ago, the retired aircraft carrier (onto which Neil Armstrong and the other Apollo 11 astronauts were plucked from the South Pacific upon returning from the moon) has struggled as a museum. Attracting only about 145,000 visitors per year, the Hornet is nearly $2 million in debt, although officials say its finances improved a year ago after the city of Alameda agreed to renegotiate the ship's lease.

Still, Wong and Stephens express confidence that they've found the perfect home for the Iowa in Vallejo, insisting that their own feasibility studies show that the ship will do well there. They talk confidently about raising the $15 million to $18 million that they say it will take to tow the Iowa the 11 miles from Suisun Bay, dredge the channel where they want it to be berthed, and make the repairs needed to jump-start it as an attraction, all prerequisites to receiving Navy approval. (Vallejo has offered tactical support, but no financial help.)

But as with the other entities competing for the ship, the couple's nonprofit group doesn't pretend to have the money it needs, leaving some veteran observers of the Navy's Sea Systems Command, which oversees the ship donation program, skeptical that the Iowa will ever escape mothball status.

"They would probably need $12 million in the bank or pledged before the Navy would even look at them," says Gary Whitney, whose company, Petaluma-based Marine Survey and Management, has helped maintain several mothballed naval ships, including the Iowa, over the years. "These groups all have wonderful ideas. The problem is that they don't have any money."

Wong, who quit her job in banking several years ago to devote her time to the effort, and Stephens, a former merchant mariner with a longtime love for ships, have been trying to procure the Iowa for 10 years. Before that, they headed one of two groups that tried to bring the USS Missouri to San Francisco before the Navy chose Hawaii.

They were key players in the controversial 2005 saga in which the supervisors voted 8-3 against a resolution supporting moving the Iowa here as a museum. That vote attracted national attention, and garnered publicity — much of it unflattering — for San Francisco as a hostile environment for the military. The perception was reinforced after Supervisor Gerardo Sandoval appeared on a Fox News program and declared, repeatedly, to the amazed host, Sean Hannity, that the United States didn't need a military.

"San Francisco just wasn't meant to be," Wong says, reflecting on the experience. "In hindsight, we realize that we were spinning our wheels in a place that didn't want us."

But others say there was more to the city's rejection of the Iowa than meets the eye.

After the supervisors' vote, an advocacy group for gays in the military approached Wong and Stephens with the idea of including a diversity museum in connection with the Iowa exhibit to tell the story of minorities, women, gays, and lesbians in the military. Jim Maloney, executive director of the Military Equality Alliance, says his group was on the verge of winning support from a majority of supervisors for a second resolution supportive of the Iowa.

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