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The Courier Post Reports: Battleship New Jersey tour groups to get their hands on the big guns

CAMDEN — Marking the 70th anniversary of the original commission of the battleship USS New Jersey this year, officials at the museum ship plan to begin taking tour groups through sections of the craft never seen before by the public.

Hoping to begin the “Turret Two” tours in February, the public for the first time will be able to see and operate the mechanisms deep within the number two gun turret, as well as the 1930s-era analogue computer that aimed and fired the projectile.

The non-profit that manages the historic site is also looking forward to another significant event as the nation’s most decorated battleship turns 70 — a four-year financial plan that could lead the ship museum to self-sustainability, after years of seeing nothing but doubt over the horizon.

“Shutting down the museum? We were close to it, sure,” said Philip Rowan, chief executive officer of the museum, seated in his office within the battleship, docked off Clinton Street.

“Scraping by? Sure. Being a non-profit, that’s what a lot of them are doing right now.”

Since opening as a museum in October 2001, the ship museum has relied on aid from the state to keep itself running and open to the public.

According to Rowan, state aid peaked in 2007 at $3.4 million, but later dwindled to $1.74 million before bottoming out at absolutely zero dollars, in 2011, although the battleship did receive $907,420 in the first half of the year from the previous fiscal year’s budget.

The battleship received $660,000 in 2012, but officials at the museum have budgeted $1 million in state aid, which is not guaranteed at this point.

“You have to stay positive, because we’re just so close (to being self-sustaining),” said Jason Hall, the ship’s curator. “It’s right there, within sight.”

As he said that, Hall was walking across the lower deck of the battleship, which was crusted with ice. In January, the weather — and the ship — become too cold for walk-up tours. Although group overnight stays continue to draw hundreds each weekend.

“This place has the climate control of a tank,” joked Hall.

That’s a large part of the Battleship New Jersey’s costs — it costs $600,000 in electricity each year to light and heat the ship. Approximately 1,000 of the ship’s 3,500 lights are never turned on in order to conserve power.

According to Rowan, staff at the battleship are hoping to switch to natural gas heat, as well as updated light fixtures, but even updates meant to save money in the long-term will have a financial drag in the short-term.

“We have to balance the financial concerns with the historic side, and keep things as they have been,” said Hall. “And that’s not always cheap.”

Rowan agreed: “We need to do it right.”

However, Rowan and the battleship museum staff have been trying every possible idea to raise money for the daily operations of the ship, from the current push to sell the naming rights of the adjacent pier for $2 million, to selling their own wine through Auburn Road Vineyard in Pilesgrove.

The museum staff is planning a large celebration ceremony for the ship’s “birthday” on May 23. Plans for a commemorative coin and a stamp are also in various stages of completion.

However, the largest changes to the museum are in the sections previously closed to the public.

“No other historic ship has this, and no other ship that I know of will let you put your hands on the mechanics of the ship and operate the controls like we’re going to allow people to do,” said Rowan. “People will be able to operate World War II-era controls and technology that still works.

“We’ll hopefully open that tour in February, once the state signs off on some of the safety issues, such as smoke detectors.”

In addition to taking tour groups of up to 15 through the previously closed-off innards of the number two gun turret — which stretch five stories below deck to the bottom of the ship — the public will be able to walk through “Broadway,” a 400-foot-long hallway connecting all three turrets.

That part of the tour will be meant to attract more donations, toward opening the engine and boiler rooms to the public.

“It’s an honor and a privilege to be here during this time,” said Hall, about the prospect of celebrating the battleship’s 70th anniversary at the same time as the museum’s possible financial stability. “It’s sad, too, that, I think, a lot of people here take this ship for granted.

“No other state has a ship like this — the longest, and most decorated. It’s a national treasure that I think is under-recognized in New Jersey.”


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