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Millions earmarked for museum may steer sub to N. Charleston
BY BRIAN HICKS
Of The Post and Courier Staff
When North Charleston dove into the fight for the Hunley museum, nobody gave the city much chance against heavy favorites Mount Pleasant and downtown Charleston.
North Charleston proposes a 40,000-square-foot museum to exhibit the Hunley at Pier Alpha on the old Navy Base. The facility, designed by Ralph Appelbaum, would feature interactive exhibits and house the sub in a separate building, a black cube.
But after nearly two years of delays in the selection process, much political maneuvering and major changes to the three proposals, the city of North Charleston has learned the ultimate rule of combat: The last one standing wins.
Members of the state Hunley Commission say the site of the proposed Confederate submarine museum may be chosen within two months, hopefully before its final crew is buried in April. Although most say the panel is down to two choices, almost every indication points to North Charleston.
"It's looking more and more like North Charleston is the logical, and only, choice as far as the options we have," said Randy Burbage, a commission member involved in the site selection.
The key, many commission members say, is financing, and in that column there is no contest. North Charleston has put the most money on the table -- $13 million -- far more than the other two cities.
The other cities say upfront money shouldn't be the only factor: A built-in tourist base and historical significance should be more important. Mount Pleasant officials say it is a slap to the first attack sub's heritage to make a decision based solely on money.
"If some have their way, we'll have two naval museums. If this is all about money, they should take the Hunley to Myrtle Beach and put it next to their aquarium -- that's where the money really is," Mount Pleasant Mayor Harry Hallman said.
Commission officials estimate the cost of the world-class, interactive museum they want is between $34 million and $40 million. Months after the bids were unsealed in March 2002, Sen. Glenn McConnell, the commission's chairman, said none were up to par and that the commission might have to re-bid the museum.
The cube-shaped “Crucible” would house the Hunley on the Cooper River, separate from the rest of the museum. Visitors would be able to view the sub from different angles.
"After studying the proposals, we wondered 'were they really everything we needed them to be,'" Chris Sullivan, who is leading the site selection process, said. "That's still a concern. The initial start-up money is important; we don't want it saddled with too much debt from the start."
There is little question which city makes the most lucrative offer.
Since the initial proposals were made, Mount Pleasant has withdrawn $7 million of the $8 million bid to place the Hunley at Patriot's Point naval museum. The city of Charleston, which offered about $5 million, has since withdrawn plans for a waterfront facility next to the South Carolina Aquarium, which most commission members say is a deal-breaker.
At the same time, the city of North Charleston has done some heavy courting and, most persuasively, increased its financial commitment to the museum from $11 million to $13 million.
"We believe we have put up an offering that is outstanding," North Charleston Mayor Keith Summey said. "Hopefully we have an excellent chance of getting it."Even with North Charleston's lavish attention, most involved say it has not been an easy choice. The course has been plagued by delays, acrimonious debate and the loss of the commission's early favorite.
Some who believe the museum should go to tourist-rich Charleston say the commission never gave the city a chance because of Mayor Joe Riley's march on Columbia in protest of the Confederate flag on the Statehouse dome. Commission members plan to fly Confederate battle flags outside the Hunley Museum. But, they say Riley's anti-flag activities have not figured in their decision-making. They say they want to make the best financial decision for the submarine.
"If the best business deal was Charleston, I wouldn't let Mayor Riley's march get in the way of the Hunley," McConnell said.
Charleston's political complications, and its low financial offer, hurt it from the beginning. But another change in position may have caused the commission more headache. When Mount Pleasant withdrew its money last winter and publicly criticized the commission for delaying its decision, it was a blow to the process. Many commission members were inclined to favor the Patriot's Point deal.
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"I couldn't have $7 million sitting on the shelf," Hallman said. "My taxpayers wouldn't let me get away with that. We'd be willing to go back and talk with them if they want to come. We'd love to have them."
Hallman, an original member of the Hunley Commission, said the panel's delay has hurt the museum's momentum. He said the state Legislature, which must ultimately approve the site, may not endorse putting the sub anywhere other than the Patriot's Point Naval Museum.
McConnell, the state Senate President Pro Tem, said it would be far more difficult to explain to the General Assembly why the commission would leave $12 million on the table, not to mention the possibility of federal grants available for redevelopment of the former Navy Base. The North Charleston proposal would put the museum at Pier Alpha on the Cooper River, at the north end of the base.
"In tight times, you've just got to have money, and $13 million said a lot," McConnell said. "With grants, we could be looking at $20 million, which is halfway to the finish line. I love Patriot's Point, and it would have been a great location, but you can't ignore the commitment and design team North Charleston has. It's an overwhelming offer, especially if we could get some of the (Charleston Naval Complex Redevelopment Authority) money."
Others argue that the bottom line shouldn't be the bottom line. Commission members acknowledge that North Charleston's biggest drawback is that it has nowhere near the 800,000 visitors Mount Pleasant has each year, not to mention the 4 million tourists who make the trek to Charleston.
With both Mount Pleasant and Charleston, Sullivan said the question is whether the abundance of competing attractions in Mount Pleasant or Charleston is a good or bad thing.
"Being in downtown Charleston next to the Fort Sumter visitor center, the IMAX and the aquarium is great in one sense, but the question is would that be too much competition," Sullivan said. "I was there recently and went to Fort Sumter and the aquarium, and it took pretty much the entire day."
Commission members say there is a similar concern about Patriot's Point, whether people would tour the aircraft carrier Yorktown, the other ships at the facility and the Hunley, or pick and choose.
In North Charleston, there is little danger of competition. City officials there euphemistically call North Charleston an "emerging" tourism destination, and the Hunley Commission clearly relishes the idea of being a city's major project. Officials also are encouraged by attendance at the Warren Lasch Conservation Center where the Hunley currently is housed. The industrial building, practically hidden on the partially deserted Navy base, has drawn about 200,000 paying customers in three years, and it is only open on Saturdays and half a day on Sunday.
"I've been studying whether people will go to the museum there and keep going back to the same thing: They are coming now," Burbage said.
Although the North Charleston site appears to be the choice, one panel member said it's not over 'til it's over.
"I intend to vote for Patriot's Point," said state Rep. Chip Limehouse. "I know in my heart that's the right place for it. Money isn't an issue to me. I know it won't be an issue at Patriot's Point; it'll make plenty."
Stephen Litvin, an associate professor of hospitality at the College of Charleston, said the commission's fears about downtown Charleston having too many tourist attraction is a bogus worry -- attractions create interest and build audiences for other attractions. Think Orlando.
"I think putting it downtown with more competition is great; it gives people more reason to stay longer," Litvin said. "But if it's a really great museum, they'll head up to North Charleston to see it. Our attractions are already dispersed around the city. People go to Boone Hall and Magnolia Plantation, which are a lot farther from downtown."
The three proposals for a Hunley museum
THE OFFER: The city of Charleston originally proposed a 45,000-square-foot, $29.5 million waterfront museum next to the South Carolina Aquarium, but last year changed its bid. The city now is offering $5 million toward a 17,000-square-foot wing on the Charleston Museum to house the Hunley. Mayor Joe Riley argues that downtown is the most historically relevant to the sub and that the museum staff's expertise would benefit the Hunley.
THE PROS: Commission members like the idea of the museum being on the path of 4 million visitors a year and the proximity to the site where the Hunley was launched when it first arrived in Charleston in 1863.
THE CONS: Commission members are opposed to forcing museum visitors to pay for parking, don't like the number of competing attractions and worry about political problems of flying the Confederate flag outside the museum. Riley has told the Hunley Commission it would not be a problem. But Chris Sullivan, chairman of the Hunley Commission panel in charge of site selection, said the flag issue could affect the group's decision.
MOUNT PLEASANT/PATRIOT'S POINT
THE OFFER: Patriot's Point and the town of Mount Pleasant initially proposed a museum of 40,000- to 60,000-square feet that would be built near the USS Yorktown at Patriot's Point. The town of Mount Pleasant committed $7 million in local taxes to the project, and Patriot's Point added $1 million to the bid. Frustrated by the delay, the town last year took its $7 million off the table -- but says it would be willing to talk about restoring that funding if the commission decides to build at Patriot's Point.
THE PROS: Commission members like the idea of a 35-acre tract of harbor-front property, a steady stream of tourists and free parking. Sen. Glenn McConnell, chairman of the Hunley Commission, says that since Patriot's Point is a state facility, it could make for less red tape for the commission, also a state agency.
THE CONS: Currently, the proposal is only for $1 million, and the design plans are up in the air. There is also the question of competition for the sub from the aircraft carrier Yorktown, and some commission members are uncomfortable with how the gate might be split between the museum and other Patriot's Point attractions.
"If you go to Patriot's Point, are the two ships going to be in competition for time? You can spend three or four hours just on the Yorktown," Sullivan said.
THE OFFER: The city wants to make a $40 million, 40,000-square-foot Hunley museum the centerpiece of its Noisette Project at the former Charleston Naval Base. The city has put up $13 million toward the Hunley project, most of it to be generated from a tax increment financing district set up for the Noisette Project. The city also would help pay the bills at the Warren Lasch Conservation Center, current home of the sub, to the tune of $100,000 a year.
THE PROS: Hunley Commission members are encouraged by the city's enthusiasm and the hiring of Ralph Appelbaum, an internationally recognized museum designer who did the Holocaust Museum in Washington, D.C. McConnell has said of Appelbaum, "The Hunley has spoken to him," which means a lot to commission members. Also, redeveloping property from the former Navy base could help secure federal funds for the museum.
THE CONS: The site is away from established tourist centers in the Lowcountry, and some commission members are unsure of the viability of the grand plans for the city's Cooper River waterfront district.
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