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ISafe harbor for museum plan?

The Baltimore Sun

For more than 50 years after it was first launched, the USS Forrest Sherman has traveled the world, fought in Cold War battles, twice escaped the scrapheap and narrowly avoided being scuttled.

Now its fate rests with the Havre de Grace City Council.

The Harford County city on the Susquehanna River is considering a proposal that would give the destroyer - the prototype for naval destroyers today - a second life as a museum and tourist attraction, berthed at a pier that would be built at the city dock.

The Navy has donated the ship to the USS Forrest Sherman Foundation Inc., a nonprofit group formed in 1999, but has made the donation contingent on the group hauling the Sherman from the Philadelphia Naval Ship Yard to a permanent home.

"Now it is all up to Havre de Grace," said Kurt Wagemann, a Bel Air resident and foundation director, who served two years aboard the ship soon after it was commissioned.

The foundation, which numbers about 6,000 members, many of them former crew members, hopes to restore the 420-foot Sherman and have it towed to Havre de Grace.

"That's a right good-sized boat," said Jim Newby, Havre de Grace spokesman. "We are asking for public input and trying to get all the information. We know we won't be financially responsible, but we are not leaving any stones unturned in making this decision."

Wagemann gave a presentation to the City Council in December and held an informational meeting at City Hall earlier this month. Another is set for 7 p.m. Feb. 4.

The city seems evenly split over the idea, said Mayor Wayne H. Dougherty, who will remain neutral until the six-member council makes its decision.

Opponents are circulating a petition, hoping to gather 300 signatures.

"Once the ship gets here, it will not be movable," said Charlie Lawson, owner of a coffee shop. "How many destroyers do you see on a river? What if the foundation goes belly up? I just don't feel this is appropriate."

Donald R. Osman, a retired teacher and 40-year city resident, said the foundation has a great but impractical idea.

"It does not fit in with our history," Osman said. "We are not a Navy town. The ship has no connection to us. Havre de Grace is so beautiful with its majestic bridges. Having a huge ship sitting on prime waterfront would take away from the city's ambience."

The Forrest Sherman, built in 1954 with an innovative propulsion system at the Bath Iron Works in Bath, Maine, can carry a crew of 324 at a speed of up to 32 knots and, fully loaded, create a draft of 22 feet. Empty, as it will be in its museum state, it would draw 14 feet, a depth the Susquehanna's waters can accommodate, a feasibility study has found.

Named for an admiral who was serving as chief of naval operations at his death in 1951, the ship could be an attraction and financial boon to the city of about 15,000. A solid marketing plan and proximity to Interstate 95 could help draw tourists and keep the venture profitable. The ship's 300 berths would suit educational sleep-aboard youth programs that could generate as much as $215,000 in annual revenues, according to the feasibility study.

Foundation members envision a hands-on museum that would provide insights into navigation, naval lore and ecology. The museum would employ about 10 and be open nearly every day at a modest admission price.

Ship museums throughout the country have proven to be successful, said Jeff Nilsson, executive director of the Historic Naval Ships Association in Virginia Beach, Va. Museum ships give the public an opportunity to go aboard and experience seagoing life, Nilsson said.

"These ships can be a real platform for educational purposes with hands-on experiences," he said.

Baton Rouge, La., has made the USS Kidd, a World War II-era destroyer-turned-museum, the center of a memorial park. As many as 70,000 visitors tour the ship annually, bringing about $1.5 million in tourism to the city, officials said.

"It can be costly going in, but this is a really worthwhile effort," said Maury Drummond, Kidd museum director. "There is tremendous interest in these ships. We use it for overnight camping, military reunions and school tours."

In San Diego, the aircraft carrier USS Midway has drawn more than 3 million visitors since it opened to the public three years ago, Nilsson said.

"There are not many failures in these ventures," he said. "A lot of it has to do with continued marketing. The Sherman could play on its history as a Cold War ship."

The foundation has raised more than $500,000 to jump-start the project, which includes construction of a 600-foot walkway and sightseeing bridge with a pier. The group has met the Navy's financial criteria, which includes a $60,000 escrow account, more than enough to tow the Sherman back to Philadelphia should the venture fail, Wagemann said.

"The Navy would never give us this ship unless we had all the financing in place," Wagemann said. "There are very strict guidelines, and that's why of the 109 historic vessels not one has failed. The town can't get stuck with it."

The Navy twice sold the Sherman for scrap, only to have it returned because of the cost. The foundation, with congressional intervention, saved the ship four years ago from being scuttled at sea and now has until 2011 to find it a home.

The project is estimated to cost nearly $7 million, an amount that includes an endowment for maintenance. The foundation has paid $25,000 for a financial planning study and another $45,000 for an engineering study that found the ship to be structurally sound.

"It does not look pretty, but its hull is made of higher quality steel than what we build with today," Wagemann said.

Before it could be hauled to its new berth, the ship would first have to go back into dry dock in Philadelphia to be sand-blasted and repainted. Once the ship is permanently based, the Navy would inspect it annually to make sure it is properly maintained and would reserve the right to reclaim it should anything go awry.

Wagemann left the Sherman in 1959 and "did not look back for 40 years," he said. But like most of the former crew, he has fond memories and a resolution to find the ship a permanent home.

"By sheer luck, I was an 18-year-old kid who was assigned a show ship for the Navy, the first of a new class of destroyer built after World War II," Wagemann said. "They sent the ship all over the world."

While Havre de Grace is the foundation's preference, members will not give up the ship, if the city denies the request.

"The Sherman was the first of a new class built after World War II," Wagemann said. "Every modern ship today is built along its radically different design. It deserves a fate better than the bottom of the sea."

mary.gail.hare@baltsun.com

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