One last fight looms for the battleship Iowa

When San Pedro held its annual holiday parade a few weeks ago, the message to the Navy was unmistakable.

One of the grand marshals — although it couldn't be there in person — was the Iowa, the storied battleship that, with the Navy's blessing, could be permanently berthed on San Pedro's waterfront.

A cheering crowd gave the thumbs up to a float with a 40-foot-long billboard showing "the Big Stick," the vessel that carried President Franklin D. Roosevelt to crucial meetings during World War II. Veterans marched alongside, and a 93-year-old who was among the Iowa's first sailors waved, with other aging warriors, from atop a truck loaded with hay bales. Their aim was to show support for turning the vintage ship into a San Pedro tourist attraction.


FOR THE RECORD:
Battleship Iowa: An earlier version of this online article said the battleship Iowa carried President Franklin D. Roosevelt to crucial meetings after World War II. Those meetings occurred during that war.


Although other Navy vessels have been transformed into floating museums — including the aircraft carrier Midway in San Diego — there are no battleships available for boarding on the West Coast. That's why Bryan Moss, a radio operator aboard the Iowa during the Korean War, thinks passing up such an opportunity would be a loss.

"This is the last available battleship anywhere," Moss said. "I think a lot of people would miss an awful lot of history."

The Los Angeles City Council has unanimously endorsed the effort and the Los Angeles Board of Harbor Commissioners, after a previous rejection, approved it in November. By May 2011, the Navy is expected to decide between San Pedro and the Bay Area city of Vallejo.

Nearly 900 feet long and 15 stories tall, the 67-year-old Iowa is one of the biggest and most powerful battleships ever built. It also is the only Navy vessel with a bathtub — a feature installed for Roosevelt when he was shuttled to the Middle East to meet with Churchill and Stalin at the Teheran Conference in 1943.

Decommissioned in 1990, the iconic ship is languishing with about 50 other old vessels in the "ghost fleet" of Suisun Bay, a few miles northeast of San Francisco. In an agreement with environmentalists concerned about pollution from some of the mothballed ships, the federal government has promised to remove them by 2017.

The Iowa's fate has been debated for years. In 2005, San Francisco's county supervisors turned down a chance to acquire it, citing opposition to the Iraq war and the military's ban on gays and lesbians serving openly. In the wake of San Francisco's rejection, Stockton mounted a bid that was ultimately scuttled.

In Vallejo, a group called the Historic Ships Memorial at Pacific Square wants to place the Iowa at nearby Mare Island, the site of a naval shipyard that opened before the Civil War and operated until 1996.

"It's known as one of the most historic sites on the West Coast and it's a stunning location for the Iowa," said Merylin Wong, a former banker who is the group's president. Besides, she said, the Iowa would generate more revenue in the tourist-rich Bay Area than in comparatively off-the-beaten-track San Pedro.

Vallejo filed for bankruptcy in 2008 and the Iowa could be its "economic salvation," Wong said. It would be appropriate, she added, for the Navy to offer a lifeline to a struggling former Navy town.

But last May, the Navy, expressing concerns about Wong's ability to raise funds and secure a site, reopened the bidding process, enabling the 11th-hour attempt by San Pedro's Pacific Battleship Center.

Wong said that the Navy was misled about her group's finances and that the city of Vallejo is making a Mare Island berth available for the Iowa. Her competitors say the years-long effort in Vallejo has demonstrated "a lack of progress."

"Our site is ready to go," said Robert Kent, a battleship enthusiast who founded the Southern California center after breaking away from Vallejo.

Kent, an Orange County construction project manager, said the Iowa would be perfectly placed to attract the thousands of cruise-ship passengers who embark at San Pedro. It would breathe life into the waterfront and the nearby Ports O' Call Village mall, he said.

Many San Pedro residents seem to agree. In a letter of support, a neighborhood council said the ship would "provide the wow factor" needed to upgrade the waterfront.

The Iowa would be placed at Berth 87, a dock now used about six times a year, when San Pedro's other cruise-ship docks are occupied. AECOM, a San Francisco firm that consults for the harbor district, said the ship likely would draw an average of 188,000 visitors a year.

"They'll have one of the most high-profile berths in our port," said Geraldine Knatz, the harbor district's executive director. "We're trying to build a critical mass of activity along the waterfront. The Iowa is a small piece of a much grander plan."

Still, the Iowa could have some choppy seas ahead. Although Kent said his group has received a bank's letter of intent for a loan of $12.5 million, a harbor commission staff report pointed out that the cash isn't in hand. A letter from Torrey Pines Bank indicated that approval of the loan would be contingent on the Navy's decision and other unspecified factors.

Maintaining a battleship is costly and in the Iowa's case would run $2 million to $3 million a year more than projected ticket sales, according to AECOM'S Steven Spickard. But such a shortfall, he told the board, would be "very much in the range of typical, healthy cultural attractions," which usually get the extra money in donations from foundations, governments or individuals.

Kent's group is hoping that the state of Iowa will kick in $5 million, but a fund established by the state has drawn only about $3,000. He has lined up professional fundraisers in both Iowa and California.

Cyndi Pederson, director of the Iowa Department of Cultural Affairs, said donations will probably start flowing once the Navy makes its decision. Schoolchildren touring the state Capitol always stop by a model of the Iowa, she said, adding that Iowans have a special place in their hearts for their namesake ship.

"I looked into bringing it back here," she joked, "but there was no way."

steve.chawkins@latimes.com

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