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?

Instead, he says, "Merylin and Bill sort of inexplicably decided that they'd had enough and walked away [from San Francisco]."

Wong made the exit in a theatrical fashion at a meeting of the San Francisco Port Commission last March. In a stunning turn, she announced that she was terminating her efforts to win the commission's approval for her plans, after more than a dozen members of her own organization succeeded in persuading the commissioners to give the group a 90-day extension for considering the plans.

"We were all flabbergasted," says Ray Guiducci, a former Wong ally who was among those who spoke on behalf of the extension, and who is now part of Morariu's effort pushing Pier 48. He says that the couple's withdrawal "came totally out of left field," inasmuch as Wong and Stephens, along with several others of their group, had spent four hours at a restaurant the night before "carefully going over our presentation and strategizing how we were going to keep [the proposal] alive."

The Iowa’s 16 mm guns were capable of lobbing 2,700-pound projectiles 23 miles.
The Iowa’s 16 mm guns were capable of lobbing 2,700-pound projectiles 23 miles.
The Iowa at the end of a row of surplus ships at the National Defense Reserve Fleet in Benicia.
The Iowa at the end of a row of surplus ships at the National Defense Reserve Fleet in Benicia.

Even commissioners were stunned.

"I just thought it was bizarre," recalls commission president Ann Lazarus, who says the group's main problem was that it "never presented an adequate financial plan to demonstrate that it had a proposal with substance."

Morariu, who had worked with Wong and Stephens for more than a year, says he felt "kicked in the stomach" when the couple pulled the plug on the San Francisco effort. And he felt "even worse" after later discovering that, while ostensibly attempting to turn things around in San Francisco, the couple had been talking privately with Vallejo officials about Mare Island.

Morariu's entity, known as the San Francisco Naval Heritage Museum, also has little money. But unlike its competitors, it has no Web site, has sought no publicity, and expresses no expectation that, even if it had San Francisco's blessing, the Navy would respond favorably to its idea to park the Iowa at Pier 48.

"Our aim is simply to get a foot in the door in the event that the Navy says no to everyone this round. We'd like to be part of the game in the future," says the Fremont firefighter and Navy veteran, who served on the USS New Jerseyin the 1980s.

His split with Wong and Stephens was less than amicable.

Wong accused Morariu of making off with proprietary information and briefly threatened to sue. Morariu scrambled to meet the Navy's application deadline. In the process, his group ruffled feathers at the USS Hornet Museum by drafting a proposal, which it subsequently had to replace, implying that the Hornet Museum was ready to throw in with the Iowa if the Navy were to endorse Pier 48.

"There were no hard feelings," says Bob Fish, the Hornet trustee. "We'd actually love to be part of a maritime museum with the Iowa in San Francisco, but, as you could understand, it was never our intention to be part of someone else's bid."

While Morariu's group has had trouble getting off the ground, the city of Stockton's effort appears to have taken a spectacular nosedive.

With Pombo's backing, the Stockton bid was timed to take advantage of the resistance Wong and Stephens were having in San Francisco. Looking for a chance to jump-start development of a former naval facility at Rough and Ready Island in the San Joaquin River, near its downtown, Stockton port officials made a generous offer. The port would make available a pier, an adjacent 15,000-square-foot building for use as a visitor center, and enough parking to accommodate thousands of cars.

The sponsoring group, the Battleship Iowa Museum & Memorial Foundation — headed by Jim Dodge, the last commanding officer at the closed naval air station in Alameda — heralded the "gift" as worth $33 million. Sponsors confidently predicted that if the city were willing to kick in another $10.9 million to tow the ship from Suisun Bay and prepare it as a museum, the Iowa could be theirs.

But Pombo's attempt at legislative fiat to circumvent the Navy's role in deciding the ship's fate rankled the Navy and influential members of California's congressional delegation. Sens. Feinstein and Barbara Boxer, as well as incoming House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, had been instrumental in appropriating more than $3 million to have the Iowa towed to California in 2001, at a time when it was widely expected that the ship would end up in San Francisco.

Having the Iowa brought to the West Coast from Rhode Island was part of an elaborate battleship swap that Feinstein and others helped engineer, after former Sen. Strom Thurmond (R-South Carolina) exerted political muscle to get the Iowa's mothballed sister ship, the New Jersey, relocated from Bremerton, Wash., to the East Coast.

In late 2005, Feinstein interceded to ensure that the Pombo move went nowhere.

Last September, the Stockton effort suffered a critical blow. That's when a consulting firm commissioned by the City Council concluded that the price tag for turning the ship into a museum would be $38 million — not the $10.9 million that the ship's backers had earlier estimated. Elected officials have since backed away from subsidizing the project.

All of which has fueled speculation that, despite the Navy's presumed preference for seeing the battleship become a museum, military brass may face some unpleasant alternatives.

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