Miami Among Candidates To Homeport Retired Carrier
By Risa Polansky
In a move to boost tourism and preserve a noted naval vessel, a Florida group is gearing up a campaign to bring the recently decommissioned USS John F. Kennedy aircraft carrier to South Florida, with Miami’s FEC Slip downtown as a main target.
The Fort Lauderdale-based JFK CV-67 Memorial Foundation’s intent is to create a John F. Kennedy maritime museum in permanently docking the 1,052-foot-long retired carrier in local waters.
The first step: engaging the business community, namely the tourism industry.
The ship’s presence "should mean the most to the hospitality industry leaders," said Tom Martin, the consultant supervising the project’s launch.
Pointing to the 950,000 visitors of the carrier USS Midway in San Diego this year, he said the JFK could "compel cruise tourists to spend an extra night," in Miami, resulting in "a direct economic benefit."
William Talbert III, president and CEO of the Greater Miami Convention & Visitors Bureau, agreed that the Midway "is very successful in San Diego and it does add to the tourism infrastructure."
If the JFK has potential to be as successful here, "it would be a welcome addition," he said. "It would be another attraction for the downtown area that gives it more critical mass" and "another reason for the cruise passenger to come early or stay late.
"We think it’s a very worthy project," he said, "but the devil is in the details."
One being cost.
Mr. Martin said it would probably take about $50 million "to open the doors on a museum."
He foresees much private support and noted that receiving the ship from the Navy would provide a free $1.5 billion structure.
Another detail that may already need ironing out is potential resistance from the local government.
"I do not support the permanent dockage of this carrier at the Museum Park slip," said Miami Mayor Manny Diaz in an e-mail.
The ship’s size poses a problem, he said, as it’s "possibly as tall or taller than the AA arena" and would require dredging to accommodate its depth requirement, reversing Miami’s more than $15 million investment in the seawall there, which he said would need to be rebuilt afterward.
Also, "I opposed the idea of a baseball stadium at Museum Park, among other reasons, because of the effect of such a structure on views and our ability to re-connect with our blue ways," Mayor Diaz said. "Having a structure this large in our slip creates the same problem for me. Picture driving north on the beautiful new boulevard to suddenly be confronted with this 200-foot-plus structure looming over."
Still, he said, "I believe that such an attraction would be good for the area. They do, in fact, become substantial tourist and educational attractions. As such, I would support finding a home for the carrier, just not at the Museum Park slip."
But the foundation’s priority now is garnering private support in hopes the business community would then encourage local government officials to get on board.
"Step one is, is it viable as a business plan?" said retired Navy Capt. Rick Hoffman. The Navy is likely to decide whether to make the ship available for donation in January 2009, he said, and would then choose who to donate it to based on "the quality of the package" presented promoting the location.
The weather places South Florida a cut above, proponents say.
Foundation founder Paul Troxell originally envisioned Boston as an appropriate base for the ship, but "Boston was a problematic port for housing the vessel on a long-term basis" because of the lack of year-round port tourism, due largely to the winter weather, Mr. Martin said.
A chief consideration as the Navy decides where to donate the ship, he said, is that the resulting museum be able to consistently support itself.
The JFK, Mr. Martin said, needs a "perfect waterfront location in a place where tourists already go," like the Midway in San Diego.
Though the foundation is also considering Fort Lauderdale, Ellen Kennedy, spokesperson for Port Everglades, said the port "wouldn’t be able to give up berth space permanently" due to the carrier’s size.
"Aircraft carriers take up a lot of space — it’s a challenge," she said. However, "when there’s an aircraft carrier (visiting the port), there is tremendous interest from the community."
Should dreams of the carrier — christened in 1967 before spending much of its life in the Mediterranean — becoming a tourist destination fall through, Mr. Martin said, "it would be a mothballed naval relic. Or God forbid they’d cut her up for scrap or sink her."
Miami turned down the opportunity to host a maritime museum last year when then-City Manager Joe Arriola called the Coast Guard frigate USS Mohawk "a piece of crap."
He said a maritime museum in Miami would be "a great idea" but faulted the proposed vessel for being a "rusty old tub. The city deserves something big, beautiful and important."
That ship is now based in Key West and used not only as a museum but as a venue for business and social functions, according to its Web site, www.ussmohawk.org. Advertisement