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Battleship Down

by Jonathan Vit
State funding has almost completely evaporated for the USS New Jersey. Is it time to drop the anchor or can the museum and memorial stay afloat?

The highly-decorated, battleship-turned-museum, the USS New Jersey, may have survived four wars, at times undergoing heavy fire and periods of intense, nonstop battle, but serious funding cuts are now threatening to sink this historic fixture.

Last year’s state funding shuffle cut budgets across the board, leaving the state’s historical sites to compete for limited grant funds. In 2010, when the battleship received funding directly out of the state budget, it received $1.7 million, half what the non-profit was awarded in 2006.

But now the Battleship New Jersey Museum and Memorial has been completely scrapped from the state’s line items. It received only $32,000 this year after competing for a grant from the New Jersey Historical Commission—a far from the $1 million needed for maintenance alone on the aging 45,000-ton Iowa-class battleship.

“We are in a critical situation,” says Battleship New Jersey President Jim Schuck.

And the USS New Jersey is not alone. Recent budget cuts left other historical sites and organizations, like the Newark Museum, Princeton’s Morven Museum and the Old Barracks Museum in Trenton, in crisis. Without funds, the museums may be forced to cut back, or close entirely.

“We are desperate for funds right now,” Schuck says of the not-for-profit floating museum. “We need help. We need support.”

A Battle-tested Museum
The USS New Jersey, constructed in 1942 at the Philadelphia Naval Yard, is the most decorated of the three Iowa-class battleships built during World War II.

The hulking vessel would guard American aircraft carriers in the Battle of the Philippine Sea, and in Okinawa, Hong Kong and Amoy. Its battles continued until the ship finally returned to American shores on Feb. 10, 1946, loaded with nearly 1,000 troops as it docked in San Francisco.

By the end of World War II, the battleship and its crew had already proven their worth. But the USS New Jersey would be called into action again in November of 1950 to complete two tours during the Korean War. Eighteen years later, the battleship would be pulled into its third war. The ship was retrofitted with new artillery in Philadelphia and sailed on toward Vietnam as the navy’s only active battleship.

On Feb. 8, 1991, the USS New Jersey was decommissioned in Long Beach, Calif. After earning 19 battle stars for operations during a career that spanned every major conflict between 1944 and 1984, The USS New Jersey returned to the Philadelphia Naval Yard on Sept. 12, 1999.

“[The ship] is a symbol of what this country is all about,” says Shuck. “[It tells] how we fought to be a superpower.”

The ship entered its well-earned retirement and was donated to Camden-based nonprofit group Home Port Alliance in early 2000, where, after a year of restoration, it became the Battleship New Jersey Museum docked on Delaware River’s shore today.

Stormy Waters
The ship’s illustrious reputation draws crowds from across the United States, welcoming roughly 2.5 million tourists and visitors in the past decade for educational tours, military ceremonies and Fourth of July festivities. On average, the museum generates $1 million annually from ticket prices, Schuck says—but ticket revenue isn’t enough to keep the museum afloat.

Aside from maintenance costs, the museum spends $700,000 on energy costs and nearly $600,000 to keep the ship insured. Without factoring in staff salaries, the museum already costs the nonprofit some $2.3 million a year.

“It is a big ship with big expenses,” Schuck says.

State funding began to shrink in 2006, dropping over the course of the next five years from $3.4 million annually to just $32,000 this year.

Under last year’s state budget cuts, the museum had to compete for money out of a $2.4 million fund overseen by the New Jersey Historical Commission, where the average grant awarded was $70,000.

The Battleship New Jersey responded by trimming staff from nearly 100 employees to fewer than 30, and will cut back hours this spring. Despite the dark horizon, the Battleship New Jersey will remain open, in part on the backs of some 350 volunteers, Shuck says. The organization also has goals to further a scholarship program for college-bound students in Camden, offering $10,000 worth of scholarships to students every year for the next decade, the president explains.

Schuck also expects the battleship to be named a national landmark within the next year, which would open up more opportunities for federal funding and would help in their fight for less reliance on the state.

“Our goal is to get off state dependency,” Schuck says. “However, we’re just not there yet. It’s not going to be this year and it’s not going to be next year, but we’re pushing.”

One of the tactics they employ is to think outside the box with events. Seventeen-thousand visitors spent the night on the battleship last year during weekend encampments; a beer festival draws in hundreds each year, as does a haunted ship attraction every Friday and Saturday through October; and there are 10-15 “sizeable” events booked for next year already, one with 3,100 people expected to attend.

“Somehow, some way, we will do it,” Schuck says, “We will not close.”

Published (and copyrighted) in South Jersey Magazine, Volume 8, Issue 8 (November, 2011).
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