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Friday September 19th 2014

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The Long-shot Dream

Aircraft Carrier as Museum, Economic Engine?
By Jeremy Morrison

There’s not much at Community Maritime Park presently except for the baseball stadium. Lots of open space and opportunity and unobstructed sunsets.

Blue Wahoos-owner Quint Studer plans to build an office complex near the park. The concept of a new, waterfront YMCA is also being floated. Those ventures—as well as the stadium itself—stand to exist in a shadow if Mark Taylor’s idea catches steam.

“I’m always trying to brainstorm and think of what we can do to make Pensacola better,” Taylor said, pitching his grand plans.

What Taylor has in mind is breathing life back into the maritime museum concept that was never realized as the stadium grew out of the ground. But, it’s a bit more than that, too.

Taylor would like to see the maritime museum housed in a piece of maritime history—the 1,067-foot USS Forrestal. He’s suggested stationing the museum in Pensacola Bay, just behind right field.

“We’re talking about a serious boat,” Taylor told the Pensacola City Council recently.

Just a Thought

The idea came about on a weekend. A website, with a petition, quickly followed.

“Literally, it’s 24 hours old,” Taylor nearly panted.

Taylor, owner of Pensacola Insurance Inspections, LLC, had been thinking about the park a bit lately. He was up for a seat on the Community Maritime Park Associates Board of Trustees and was considering the organization’s debt issues.

“I thought, we’re the Cradle of Naval Aviation, we need a carrier,” Taylor said. “It would be just a monster economic driver.”

He pointed to other locales that featured retired aircraft carriers. They tended to draw a reliable stream of visitors.

The USS Midway has been docked in downtown San Diego, Calif., since 2004. Visitors may tour the vessel, which serves as a maritime museum. Last November, the carrier also hosted a college basketball game between the Syracuse Orange and San Diego State Aztecs.

The USS Lexington—the ‘Blue Ghost’ or ‘Lady Lex’—is serving as a museum ship in Corpus Christie, Texas. In 2003, the Lexington was designated a National Historic Landmark.

The Lexington was stationed in Pensacola for many years. There was talk of holding onto the ship before it ultimately retired in Texas, but public appetite was never great enough.

Taylor sees the Lexington as a missed opportunity for Pensacola. The carrier currently ranks as one of Texas’s top-ten tourism draws.

“It was a huge success story and it should have been Pensacola’s,” Taylor said.

Taylor views the Forrestal as another chance. He’d like to see it find a home at the park, or possibly at Commendencia Slip at the end of Palafox Street, where the Lexington resided for a while.

“Pensacola’s a perfect fit for it,” Taylor said.

The Vision

Pensacola City Council President P.C. Wu quite enjoyed the USS Midway. He and his wife toured the carrier on a trip to San Diego.

“It is really, really, really nicely done,” Wu said after hearing Taylor’s Forrestal-pitch.

Taylor was at the council meeting due to the CMPA-seat consideration—a seat he now holds—but he also took the opportunity to run through the big plan.

“It is a pie-in-the-sky project,” Taylor told the council.

First, the U.S. Navy, as well as the federal government, must agree to consider donating the Forrestal. Currently, plans to scrap the vessel have not changed.

Secondly, around $30 million will need to be secured. That’s how much Taylor is estimating it will cost to restore the ship and turn it into a maritime museum.

The entire vision includes partnerships with the Naval Aviation Museum and the University of West Florida. The ship would house a maritime museum, as well as a research center—two aspects that were nixed from the Maritime park.

The idea has piqued the interest of the local community. The website has generated 2,000 signatures for a petition in support of the project. Taylor has begun discussing the concept with people like Nancy Fetterman—widow of the late Admiral John Fetterman, the energy behind the original museum plans—and Rep. Jeff Miller (R-Fla.).

But not everyone is on board. After hearing Taylor’s idea, City Councilman Brian Spencer raised some concerns.

“My question is:  location, location, location,” Spencer said.

The councilman noted that a vessel the size of an aircraft carrier needed certain accommodations. He also pointed out that the Forrestal—at flight-deck height alone—would tower above the stadium and block what is currently a picturesque park with daily sunsets exploding across the horizon.

“That’s an eight-story building,” Spencer said. “That’s what the public that is probably so excited about this doesn’t recognize.”

Uphill Battle

The USS Forrestal began her service in the early 1950s. The aircraft carrier served in a variety of venues around the world and came to be known as the “USS Zippo” due to a number of fires on board—including a July 1967 incident in Vietnam’s Gulf of Tonkin, when 134 sailors were killed and 21 airplanes were lost.

The Forrestal was decommissioned in 1993. For the past few years, it has sat in Pennsylvania awaiting the scrap yard.

“The biggest uphill battle,” Taylor said, “is going to be to get that thing off the chopping block.”

Another uphill battle will be that $30 million. And the city council. And the Navy.

Taylor ballparks the Forrestal project’s chances of success at around 40 percent.

“That’s my gut, honestly,” he said. “But I’m less afraid of failing than I am of not dreaming big. It’s worth giving everything we’ve got until it either happens or it doesn’t.”