Warship museums are not assured victory as tourist attractions
The USS Iowa is pulled through San Francisco Bay by the oceangoing tug Warrior on May 26, 2012. The Iowa made its final voyage to Southern California and its permanent home as a floating museum on the San Pedro waterfront.
Los Angeles Times
When the battleship Iowa was commissioned in 1943, it was a powerful weapon in yet another war to end all wars.
Now its huge guns are pointed at a string of seafood restaurants in San Pedro, and it's about to join America's fleet of floating museums — some 48 warships that have been donated to coastal communities eager for tourist dollars and upgraded waterfronts.
Although some of the attractions have thrived, others have been swamped in debt or racked by age.
In San Diego, the aircraft carrier Midway has topped 1 million visitors per year. Another carrier, the Intrepid, is a must-see museum in Manhattan, especially with the recent arrival of the space shuttle Enterprise.
But near Houston, the century-old battleship Texas closed indefinitely last week after holes opened up in its corroded hull and it started taking on more than 1,500 gallons of water a minute. In Alameda, the aircraft carrier Hornet is getting by. But it was nearly shut down a few years ago when officials couldn't cover the rent and electric bills. In Camden, N.J., the battleship New Jersey now has five full-time employees — down from a peak of 50.
The difference comes down to a real estate adage: "Location, location, location," said Robert Kent, director of the Pacific Battleship Center, which will operate Los Angeles' newest museum.
In a ceremony to celebrate the Fourth of July, Julianna Roosevelt, a great-granddaughter of one of the Iowa's biggest fans, President Franklin D. Roosevelt, on Wednesday led a packed house of politicians and hundreds of the ship's former sailors in the Pledge of Allegiance. The Iowa will open to the public at San Pedro's Berth 87 on Saturday.
"With the Iowa, we'll be creating a critical mass of people coming to the harbor," Kent said. "Over four to five years, it will be a destination."
Initially, less than 10% of the ship's interior will be open to visitors, who can file into the captain's quarters, view the bathtub installed for FDR, pass through massive galleys and climb a maze of ladders to the bridge. Standing on teakwood decks, museum-goers also will be able to check out the handprint-sized dent where a Japanese shell slammed harmlessly into the Iowa's 17-inch thick armor plating. Additional tours will be added over the next four years.
And for fans of more up-to-the minute technology, Wargaming America will provide a computer-animated film packed with the sound and fury of combat at sea — as well as a room where gamers can control the Iowa's defenses during a simulated air attack.
"It will be a lot of history compressed into 2 1/2 minutes," Kent said.
Boosters say both the historic ship and its gritty, industrial harbor have plenty of tourism potential. They point to the 600,000 passengers a year who come through San Pedro's cruise terminal, just down the waterfront from the Iowa. More visitors are anticipated over the next five years as the Port of Los Angeles — the Iowa's landlord — completes a $1.2-billion redevelopment that includes a new marina, parks and a sprawling crafts market.
If 188,000 paying customers climb aboard the Iowa in the first year, the museum will break even, said Kent, whose projections have ranged as high as 400,000. Tickets for adults will cost $18. If attendance founders, the port, under its 10-year lease, can exile the ship to a remote berth.
But Joe Buscaino, the L.A. city councilman who represents San Pedro, is optimistic.
"I truly believe the Iowa is the tipping point for commercial and retail development along nearly 10 miles of waterfront," he said. "It's what we've been thirsting for."
Sunny projections, however, are standard operating procedure when it comes to ship-board museums.
Even successes like the Intrepid have been hard-won. In 2007 — 25 years after it first opened — officials had to borrow against the Intrepid's endowment to keep the museum open.
The New Jersey, one of the Iowa's sister battleships, opened at one of the worst possible times for tourism, shortly after Sept. 11, 2001. Over the years, attendance has dropped from a high of 250,000 to 150,000 last year, and state funding has fallen from $3 million annually to zero.
Still, it fascinates visitors, who can enter a gun turret and heft canvas sacks the size and shape of powder bags used in World War II, said curator Jason Hall, adding: "Guests want to touch history."
That's equally true on the Hornet, where tour guides with flashlights lead ghost hunters in search of the spirit of a sailor who supposedly hanged himself after receiving a "Dear John" letter.
Poltergeist or not, the Hornet is cursed with a bad location.
"It's a difficult place to get to," said Jeff Nilsson, director of the Virginia-based Historic Naval Ships Assn. "Even people who know where they're going get lost when they're going there."
The Hornet is docked at the former Alameda Naval Air Station, a swath of Bay Area real estate whose promised redevelopment has been stalled for years.
It gets about 60,000 visitors yearly.
"It's not a dire situation, but it's not optimal," said Randall Ramien, chief executive of the museum. "You're chasing your tail a lot of times just to keep the operation going."
By contrast, the Midway, with San Diego's skyline and the ships of Coronado visible from the flight deck, is in an ideal spot.
Its 1 million visitors include attendees at the hundreds of business events held aboard ship each year. Some 40,000 students participate in learning laboratories onboard, and visitors from around the world take audio tours in six languages.
The ship has a storied past, but museum officials also aim for a present-day buzz, with TV shows like"American Idol"and "Germany's Next Top Model" using the massive vessel and its 30 aircraft as a backdrop.
"Don't assume you know what the public wants," said Midway marketing director Scott McGaugh when asked his advice for the Iowa. "Don't build a museum just for History Channel buffs and retired military."
Times staff writer Tony Perry in San Diego contributed to this report.
©2012 the Los Angeles Times
Visit the Los Angeles Times at www.latimes.com
Distributed by MCT Information Services