Thursday, October 07, 2010

Iowa in San Pedro ???

Certain ships are revered because they participated in historic battles or simply represented the pinnacle of naval power for their time. One example of both is the HMS Victory, Admiral Horatio Nelson's flagship at the Battle of Trafalgar in 1805. Another is the Iowa, the lead ship of the last and most powerful line of U.S. battleships ever built, President Franklin D. Roosevelt's shuttle and a World War II workhorse. Yet while the Victory is lovingly maintained as a floating museum that has helped turn Portsmouth, England, into a major tourist attraction, the massive Iowa has been mothballed by the Navy in a tributary of San Francisco Bay.

That may soon change. A booster group hopes to bring the Iowa to the Port of Los Angeles, where it would anchor a $1.2-billion redevelopment of the faded Ports O' Call Village mall and a surrounding stretch of waterfront. But first it has to overcome resistance from port officials.

The Iowa was decommissioned for the last time in 1990. A group in Vallejo has been trying for years to turn it into a naval museum at the nearby Mare Island Naval Shipyard, but Navy officials lost patience with the group's fundraising progress last spring and opted to seek other bids. A rival organization, the Pacific Battleship Center, has secured an $8.5-million loan to tow the Iowa to San Pedro and renovate it. The L.A. City Council unanimously approved a resolution last month urging the port to find a berth for the ship, and the initiative also has the backing of the San Pedro Chamber of Commerce and the Port Community Advisory Committee.

Yet officials at the port, which is conducting a feasibility study on the project slated for completion early next month, have expressed qualms. Though there's berth space available near Ports O' Call, they fret that the Iowa could take up space needed for more lucrative activity, such as docking cruise ships, and that if it doesn't pan out as a tourist attraction, the port could be stuck with a huge white elephant. Floating museums have had mixed success in Southern California. Long Beach struggled for years to turn a profit on the Queen Mary, yet the Midway, a retired World War II aircraft carrier in San Diego, lures a whopping 800,000 visitors a year.

San Pedro is a bit remote for tourists, and it isn't a Navy town like San Diego, so the Iowa might never be a Midway-sized hit. We'll withhold judgment until the port finishes its report, but can't help feeling that L.A. would miss a big financial and cultural opportunity if the battleship plans are sunk.

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