Wednesday, March 15, 2006


San Francisco gives battleship the heave-ho


USA Today
By William M. Welch
March 08, 2006

In the two years since the USS Midway found a permanent dock in San Diego Harbor, it has become a major tourist attraction.

Nearly 900,000 people boarded the aircraft carrier in its first year of operation, rejuvenating shops and restaurants on the waterfront. The ship is booked years in advance for functions at up to $30,000 a pop.

Now the Navy has another ship it wants to bestow on a West Coast port: the big World War II battleship USS Iowa. But the ship has run into rough sailing and a harsh political headwind in the city the Navy thought would be an ideal home: San Francisco.

The San Francisco Board of Supervisors voted 8-3 to spurn the ship. Supervisors who oppose the offer say they don't want a ship from a military in which openly gay men and women cannot serve. They also say they don't want it because they oppose the Iraq war, which city voters condemned in a 2004 ballot question.

"I don't think the climate has improved for tying a 10-story warship, or gun, to the waterfront," Supervisor Gerardo Sandoval says.

Veterans in the former Navy town are saying enough is enough.

"It's outrageous, even for San Francisco," Ingrid Sarembe, a Vietnam War-era vet and commander of an American Legion post in the city, says of the opposition to the Iowa. "And we have some pretty outrageous things going on here."

The Iowa is among four "Iowa class" battleships, the biggest the Navy ever sailed. The others have found homes: the USS Missouri at Pearl Harbor, the USS Wisconsin at Norfolk, Va., and the USS New Jersey at Camden, N.J. The Navy has said it will officially invite bids for a permanent dock and museum site for the Iowa this spring.

Anti-cipating a final home in San Francisco, the Navy had towed the mothballed Iowa from Rhode Island to Suisun Bay, 30 miles to the northeast of San Francisco.

Sen. Dianne Feinstein, D-Calif., a former mayor of San Francisco, had pushed for her city to welcome the ship and to create a museum that would attract and educate tourists — but a challenger to the city has emerged.

Stockton, a farm hub in California's Central Valley, is putting together a bid to place the Iowa at its freshwater port up the San Joaquin River from San Francisco Bay.

Richard Aschieris, director of the Port of Stockton, says the port has put together a donation of facilities worth more than $33 million, including a 1,000-foot-long berth, a building for a museum and 15 acres of parking on a site where the Navy once had supply and communication centers for the Pacific Fleet.

Aschieris says the ship would bring tourism dollars to the city and boost the local economy. "You've got a ship with a remarkable history, and it's up for donation," he says. "This is the last battleship in the world without a home. They've all either got homes or are at the bottom of the sea."

Appealing to military pride is not likely to move the San Francisco city supervisors.

On Feb. 28, the supervisors passed a resolution urging impeachment of President Bush and Vice President Cheney for leading the country into war in Iraq, eroding civil liberties and other activities. Sandoval appeared last month on Fox News' Hannity & Colmes show and said, "The United States should not have a military. All in all, we would be in much, much, much better shape."

Sandoval says his worries about financing are stronger than his philosophical reservations. He says there is already a carrier museum for the USS Hornet across San Francisco Bay at Alameda Point that has not done as well as billed.

"I need an ironclad guarantee ... no city subsidy will be required," he says.

Supervisor Tom Ammiano says San Francisco, a city where gays make up a significant segment of the population, need not apologize for spurning the battleship.

"You are not allowed to be a gay or lesbian in the military except when there's a war, and then when the war ends, you are kicked out," he told The Sacramento Bee.

Some gay veterans want the Iowa in San Francisco.

Mario Benfield is commander of American Legion Post 448, which describes itself as the only post whose membership is predominantly gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender honorably discharged veterans.

"It's a piece of history. There's nothing better than a big battleship to grace the bay," he says.

A non-profit group formed to bring the Iowa to San Francisco, the Historic Ships Memorial at Pacific Square, is trying to change minds on the city Board of Supervisors.

Merylin Wong, director of the group, has proposed to establish as part of the Iowa museum an exhibit honoring the service of gays and lesbians in the military. She would like to replicate the success of the Midway in San Diego.

Scott McGaugh, marketing director for the Midway museum, says in its first year, 879,281 paid visitors attended the ship — double the projected attendance. He says the ship is rented out most nights to private groups and conventions that host parties on its flight deck. The museum is booked solid and taking reservations for 2009.

As for San Francisco's reluctance to do likewise, he says, "That's local politics."


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