Beating Swords Into Tourist Shares

S.F. tries, tries again to bring the USS Missouri "home"

Ten years after then-Mayor Dianne Feinstein's dream of home-porting the USS Missouri in San Francisco was shot down, some of the same players are again needling the Navy for the privilege of hosting the battleship — this time as a museum. Meanwhile, across the Bay in Alameda, the Aircraft Carrier Hornet Foundation is racing to raise the millions necessary to convince the Navy that the former naval air station there should be the eponymous ship's final resting place, rather than a Hunters Point scrapyard.

Any day now, the nonprofit Missouri Allied Forces Memorial (MAFM) expects the Navy to decide among four cities competing to host the decommissioned “Mighty Mo,” on whose decks Japan surrendered at the end of World War II. At stake are an estimated 500,000 annual visitors and the millions of dollars they would bring to the winning city.

Long Beach, Honolulu, and Bremerton, Wash., the Missouri's current residence, all have submitted thick proposals to the Navy detailing how they plan to maintain the battleship. And each city has its merits: Honolulu its proximity to Pearl Harbor, Long Beach its naval history, Bremerton its historic shipyards. The final decision-maker on the Missouri's resting place is Navy Secretary John Dalton. His criteria are varied: mooring, towing, maintenance, security, finances, public benefit (read “publicity”) to the Navy, and the historical significance of each city.

The Bay Area's greatest liability is its politics. The Navy frowns at S.F. for having hosted the country's only large protests against the Persian Gulf War, but home-porting proponents have gambled that the city's enormous number of tourists will overcome that public relations demerit.

Anchoring San Francisco's effort have been retired Reserve Adm. Russ Gorman and Jim Lazarus, a political jack-of-all-trades who previously helmed Feinstein's 1986 Missouri effort. Among other reasons, that play was scuttled when vocal locals protested the Missouri's presumed cargo of nuclear-tipped missiles; the controversy-shy Navy instead based the ship at Long Beach. The issue wouldn't die, though, and in November 1988 S.F. voters narrowly approved Proposition S, committing the city to spending $2 million a year to base the Missouri at Hunters Point. Too little, too late; the Navy kept the Missouri in the Southland. (This, along with the failure of a downtown ballpark initiative, caused Lazarus to dub himself “deputy mayor for hopeless causes.”)

Then Hollywood called, and the Navy sullied the Missouri by allowing it to star in Under Siege, a Steven Seagal vehicle in which the actor, playing a commando-turned-cook, thrashes a group of heavily armed terrorists who hijack the battleship. In real life, the Missouri was decommissioned in 1991 after a last assignment lobbing munitions at Iraq and its armed forces.

Which leaves us with the urban scurry for this piquant Navy leftover.
How big will the doggie bag be? Lazarus says that backers commissioned Environmental Research Associates to estimate probable tourist visits to a San Francisco-based Missouri; ERA projected a half-million visitors annually, each shelling out at least $9 for admission, for an annual gross operating income of roughly $4 million to $5 million.

To cover towing the Missouri here from Bremerton, making the ship's interior tourist-friendly, and paying the Port Commission to restore Piers 30 and 32, MAFM has received tentative approval of $1.4 million in financing from federal loans administered by the city. Lazarus says the group also has raised more than $100,000 from private donors, and would expect to raise more if MAFM's bid comes out on top.

And what about the groups who opposed home-porting the Missouri here when she was capable of laying waste to whole cities? San Francisco Tomorrow now thinks the Missouri is a fine, job-producing addition, according to SFT President Lonnie Lawson, who says his group is concerned primarily with increasing maritime usage of the city's waterfront.

Somewhat more skeptical is Jackie Cabasso, executive director of the Western States Legal Foundation. Speaking on the 51st anniversary of the atomic bombing of Hiroshima, she said, “Better a museum than an active battleship … [but] we would be opposed to a museum that glorifies war.”

The Navy retains actual title to the Missouri for an unspecified period of time, and comes out ahead no matter which city eventually secures the ship: It gets favorable publicity from museum exhibits detailing the Missouri's WWII exploits, and it gets civilians to foot the bill for maintaining the ship in nearly battle-ready shape should the need arise to rearm and recommission her — a remote, but real, possibility.

Backers currently are negotiating a lease with the Port of San Francisco — where then-mayoral aide Lazarus was assigned at the tail end of the Jordan administration — and Lazarus says one current proposal envisions paying Port 6 a percent of the gross receipts from Missouri tourism. He states that the Missouri would create “40 full-time-equivalent employments” of those who would take tickets, maintain the ship, and lead tours through its innards.

Facing a different, but related, challenge at the recently closed Alameda Naval Air Station, the Aircraft Carrier Hornet Foundation (ACHF) is rushing to save its namesake from the scrap heap. The foundation has fewer than 60 days left to convince the Navy that it can raise the $2.3 million in seed money, plus the $4 million to $5 million a year it will take to maintain the Hornet as a “Naval Air and Sea Museum Complex.”

Last October, in fact, Hunters Point's Astoria Metal Corp. was all set to scrap the aircraft carrier, which (besides its WWII battles) scored some peacetime successes retrieving the crews of Apollo 11 and Apollo 12.

But the Hornet had been designated a national historic landmark, and the ACHF successfully sued the Navy to stop the scrapping. The Navy canceled the scrap contract, and now Astoria reportedly is out about $1 million that it spent on lobbying and preparations to take delivery, not to mention the actual breakup value of the ship's thousands of tons of steel and its teak-wood flight deck.

Missouri activist Russ Gorman welcomes the Alameda-based Hornet as completing an air-sub-surface triangle composed of the carrier, the submarine Pampanito at the Wharf, and the Missouri, and he's sanguine about his own prospects for the latter: “We need something to represent the Navy here. … If you ask me, I think our chances are above 90 percent.

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