Is the USS Constellation worth another $9 million in repairs?
That depends on what we think the Constellation is. A tourist attraction, the centerpiece of the Inner Harbor? Or a historic artifact, a valuable tool linking us with the maritime history not just of Baltimore and Maryland but of the United States as a fledgling world power?
Hardly anyone still believes the wooden sailing vessel in the Inner Harbor is the frigate built here in 1797. But there is no doubt it is the last of the all-sail warships built by the U.S. Navy, the culmination of centuries of American wooden shipbuilding skill and one of the great relics of the Civil War.
The real answer to the Constellation's continued value lies with the people being asked to support and enjoy it if the vessel were repaired and restored to public use. If the ship disappeared, there would be a huge hole at the apex of the Inner Harbor. But $9 million would buy a lot of brand new centerpiece if the Constellation had to be replaced.
Unfortunately, ordinary people haven't had much opportunity to express their preference, other than to visit the Constellation by the hundreds of thousands each year until recently. Now is the time to test their loyalty to the vessel that lies shorn of its rigging, its hull held together with baling wire and in danger of sinking. If the state and city governments, faced with many demands for socially necessary facilities, are asked to chip in $6 million or so, they need to hear from their constituents that they think the investment is worth it.
Would many people want to invest millions of public funds for a tourist attraction, no matter how crucial to the Inner Harbor? We doubt it. They might be willing, though, if they had an emotional and intellectual commitment to the project. The Constellation was a strong attraction to visitors when it was just a historic sailing vessel berthed downtown. It could be so much more if it were expanded into a dockside museum, an artifact explaining the era of wooden ships and iron men and its central role in this country's history.
Marylanders have demonstrated in the past -- most recently in the popular demand for a new Pride of Baltimore II -- the value they put on relics of our sailing past. The new leaders of the Constellation Foundation appear ready to capitalize on the ship's intellectual and emotional appeal. That's the way to make a case for saving the Constellation.