Updated 3 yearss ago
A group trying to bring the USS Forrestal to Tampa has generated as much controversy as progress.
In Tampa, a group of Navy veterans is trying to land a decommissioned aircraft carrier, the USS Forrestal, and turn it into a high-tech museum. The non-profit group USS Forrestal Sea, Air, Space Museum Inc. wants to dock the nation's first supercarrier, which served from the 1950s through the early 1990s, at the Port of Tampa as a centerpiece for the Channelside District, a retail/restaurant complex. Supporters say the Forrestal would fit well with adjacent tourist venues, such as the Florida Aquarium, Garrison Seaport and Ybor City.
Along the way, however, the group has steered itself into rough seas. A meeting last year among Forrestal group representatives and two members of the Tampa Port Authority may have violated the state's Sunshine Law. That The Tampa Tribune's editorial page editor, Edwin A. Roberts Jr. -- the author of numerous columns promoting the Forrestal venture -- arranged and attended the private meeting also raised eyebrows. Then, in June, the Forrestal group's executive director, Jack Martin, resigned after media reports unveiled his criminal record and previous troubles with the IRS.
Another issue is finding dock space for the 1,086-foot-long ship, which would likely displace International Ship Repair, a long-time port tenant that employs 300. Port director George Williamson says he doesn't want to break International Ship's lease, which expires at the end of 2000, and has notified the Forrestal group that it will need to "find a space to park the vessel (in the interim) if it brings the ship in before the current lease is up."
Space is a moot point, however, if the U.S. Navy doesn't think the group has a solid, well-financed business plan. The Forrestal group must raise at least $12 million by November, when the Navy will decide whether to donate the ship. The group is banking on support from the half-million veterans in the greater Tampa Bay area, along with corporate sponsors, such as Outback Steakhouse, which has contributed $100,000. If private fundraising falls short, the group may seek industrial revenue bond financing.
Charles Bray, an executive with International Ship, worries that a focus on tourism will dilute the port's business mission, and questions whether $12 million will be enough to cover the costs of extensive dredging and modifications to the pier to accommodate the Forrestal.
In the project's favor, Tampa is the only city that's applied for the carrier. The city of Baltimore, a potential competitor, has yet to submit a proposal. Tampa's plan "looks better than pretty good," says Dennis McDonald, fundraising chairman. And Tampa Mayor Dick Greco -- one of the Port Authority directors at the private meeting last year -- favors the project, particularly since the group is not asking for taxpayer dollars. Williamson says the Channelside site will eventually be developed as a tourist destination. "If the Forrestal is not successful in coming, something else will," he says.
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