Economic Development

Battling Over a Battleship

The Jersey port that lands the U.S.S. New Jersey will enjoy some economic benefits. But is this trophy worth the fight?
by | February 2000

William Fulton

William is a Governing columnist, director of the Kinder Institute for Urban Research at Rice University and former mayor of Ventura, Calif.

On December 7, 1942--the first anniversary of the bombing of Pearl Harbor--the U.S.S. New Jersey was launched from the Philadelphia Naval Shipyard. It had taken more than two years to build, and for the next half-century, the battleship circled the globe, seeing service in World War II and the conflicts in Korea and Vietnam. For a time, the New Jersey was the only active battleship in the world.

Now decommissioned, the New Jersey arrived back in Philadelphia recently after a highly publicized two-month trip through the Panama Canal from the Puget Sound Naval Shipyard near Seattle. But her war days aren't over. A battle over the New Jersey is moving into full battle dress after the Navy promised to locate the ship permanently in New Jersey. A bitter north-south battle within the state ensued over where it will go and which port will enjoy whatever economic benefits hosting the ship may bring.

On one side of the battle lines stands New Jersey State Assemblyman Joseph Azzolina, a retired Navy captain who has chaired the state's Battleship New Jersey Commission for almost 20 years and regards the return of the U.S.S. New Jersey as one of the greatest achievements in his 30-year political career. After a lengthy process, Azzolina finally reached consensus in the northern part of the state that the battleship should be at the Military Ocean Terminal in Bayonne, where it would be spitting distance from Staten Island and New York Harbor. Years ago, the New Jersey was docked in Bayonne during one of the many periods when it was temporarily decommissioned.

On the other side stand politicians from southern New Jersey, who favor parking the New Jersey near the New Jersey Aquarium on the Camden waterfront, where they hope it will serve as an important piece in the hoped-for revival of one of America's most troubled cities. The Camden effort has led to a rare consensus among Republicans and Democrats, as well as suburban and city politicians, in southern New Jersey. They all agree that the battleship should be berthed near its Philadelphia birthplace, where it would have economic development impact on Camden. Even U.S. Housing and Urban Development Secretary Andrew Cuomo--who is from New York--weighed in on Camden's side, promising $1 million in enterprise zone money for the effort.

But Assemblyman Azzolina and the Bayonne supporters view the Camden effort as a Johnny-come-lately and argue that the New Jersey would be accessible to far more tourists in Bayonne because of its proximity to New York.

Rather than making the tough political call, New Jersey Governor Christine Todd Whitman dropped the problem in the Navy's lap. She has said that either Bayonne or Camden would make an excellent choice and has promised that the state will abide by the Navy's decision. All of which means that Navy Secretary Richard Danzig has, in effect, been placed in the position of deciding New Jersey's economic development future--on an issue crucial to the entire state.

The battleship is a major source of pride in New Jersey; for years, residents have been donating money to a nonprofit foundation, buying special license plates and taking other steps to raise both money and public consciousness about the battleship. Wherever the New Jersey goes, some people will visit it.

But is this trophy worth the fight? As Americans become more history- conscious--and more money flows into tourism--some landmarks combine a sense of history and a sense of destination so effectively that they become emotionally significant and money-makers to boot. The site of the sunken U.S.S. Arizona in Honolulu is such a moving experience that air travelers regularly zip over for a quick visit between flights at Honolulu Airport--a boon to local cab drivers, if no one else. On the other hand, historic attractions plopped down without a sense of historic context have rarely succeeded. For example, Howard Hughes'"Spruce Goose"--the gigantic wooden flying boat built in the aftermath of World War II and ultimately rejected by a post-war Congress--was taken out of mothballs and put on display alongside the Queen Mary in Long Beach Harbor in California in the 1980s. It was finally removed, however, because it attracted few visitors.

A historic battleship can be fun and educational, and both Camden and Bayonne have some connection to the U.S.S. New Jersey. But a ship is not likely to solve anybody's economic development problems all by itself no matter how big or important it is. Nor is it likely to confer economic development advantages all by itself. And it may well be that the scars of the battle will cause the state far more damage than the benefits brought by snagging the battleship. In the meantime, anybody in New Jersey can go see the battleship by crossing the state line into Pennsylvania.


More from Economic Development