U.S.S. Iowa's Final Battle Pits Vallejo vs. L.A.

If only someone would tow this thing to Des Moines
By Jan. 18, Vallejo must submit a plan for slithering out of bankruptcy. Former banker Merylin Wong, the head of a maritime enthusiast's group there, has a plan for keeping the city on firm financial footing henceforth: Pay millions of dollars yearly to park a decaying 67-year-old warship off the city's shore.

As is so often the case when Northern Californians try to lift themselves by their own bootstraps, Los Angelenos are there to stomp them back down. Wong's plan to park the World War II battleship U.S.S. Iowa at Mare Island as a floating museum may be scuttled in favor of a competing plan, put together by L.A.-area boosters. The U.S. Navy may see the southerners' scheme as more economically viable.

Maybe tourists would come if they named it after ex-A's shortstop Lance BlankenSHIP
Scoff if you must. But spending hundreds millions of federal dollars on decaying structures actually can lure tourist dollars.

On a per-square-foot basis, The San Francisco Maritime Museum is perhaps the most expensive National Park in the world, thanks to rotting wooden hulks that must be constantly repaired at exorbitant expense. And, what-do-you-know, some Fisherman's Wharf tourists actually do seem to wander up to the ships after they've had their fill of buying chowder bread bowls and polar-fleece hoodies.

Alcatraz -- for most of its life a cluster of nondescript warehouses, briefly a small prison -- is a bizarre place for a tourist to go. But go they do. We even lure visitors to America's National Office Park, also known as the Presidio of San Francisco, a cluster of commercial and residential rental properties tourists are permitted to walk past.

Given San Francisco's bizarre federally funded tourist attractions, it's conceivable that Vallejo or L.A. might get a few people to visit an old ship there.

We'd been playing phone tag during the past couple of weeks with Wong, in hopes of doing a story on the Iowa battle, when, on Dec. 28, the damned L.A. Times scooped us. However, in 2007, SF Weekly's Ron Russell wrote a 3,600-word story about a different cast of characters then competing over the old ship, currently floating in the mothball fleet in Suisun. So we still consider ourselves the paper of record on this one.

The ship was removed from active service in 1990. In 2000, Sen. Dianne Feinstein arranged for the ship to be towed from the east coast to San Francisco via the Panama Canal, in order to become a local tourist attraction here. That was the same year of a "progressive" coup where lefties took over the San Francisco Board of Supervisors. In 2005, the hippies yanked the welcome mat for the vessel, couching their action as a form of symbolic protest against the Iraq war and the military's Don't Ask Don't Tell policy.

Iowa firing guns.jpg
Naval Historical Center
Who wants some?
U.S. congressman Richard Pombo, then representing parts of the Central Valley, introduced legislative language that would have seized the ship for Stockton; Feinstein scuttled that plan. Next came Wong, whose group "Historic Ships Memorial at Pacific Square" sought to tow the ship from its current location at the Suisun Bay ghost fleet.

The proposed museum is Vallejo's "economic salvation," Wong was quoted in the Times as saying.

But Robert Kent, a fellow maritime enthusiast, broke away from Wong's group to form a rival ship museum proposal, called Pacific Battleship Center, to be based in the shoreline L.A. suburb of San Pedro.

Now it's up to the Navy to decide between the two proposals, both of which are weighed down by the fact it will cost an estimated $2 million to $3 million yearly to maintain the ship.

In a gambit harkening back to 1993, when Ismay, Montana temporarily changed its name to "Joe," Kent hopes the state of Iowa will donate $5 million to his group because, well, the ship has the same name as the state. So far, the Times reports, a fund established by the state has drawn about $3,000.

In May, the U.S. Navy is expected to decide whether to send the ship to Vallejo or San Pedro. No doubt it's a prize -- it's the only battleship with a bathtub, installed for a 1943 stay by wheelchair-bound Franklin D. Roosevelt.

Both rivals say they'll be able to make up the the $3 million maintenance tab with donations and government subsidies. Old boatman's lore says the two happiest days of a man's life are when he gets, and gets rid of, his craft.

So whomever wins -- the Bay Area or usurping L.A. -- this tale will have a happy ending. For the U.S. Navy at least.

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