Patriots Point struggles to emerge from stormy seas 

Saving a Sinking Ship

Allentown, Pa. Gainesville, Fla. Cincinnati, Ohio. Check the zip codes at the USS Yorktown's visitor logbook, and you'll find more out-of-state numbers than 294-anythings.

Jim and Pat Sanders spent a recent Wednesday touring the ship, a focal point of their stop in Charleston during a motorcycle tour from their home in Temple, Texas.

"When we got in that submarine, I said, 'Wow!'" exclaims Jim. "I was too young to be a part of this history, but to see what people sacrificed — what my father and grandfather experienced — I think that's kind of neat."

The submarine is the USS Clamagore, a World War II-era boat that is one of the only surviving diesel subs of its type on display to the public. But from the outside, it looks like it's barely hanging on. Alongside the Yorktown since 1981, the Clamagore exterior has been worn by rust into an unsightly, mangled mess.

Adjacent to the sub, the aircraft carrier rests in 26 feet of mud, a place it has occupied since 1975. Deep in its hull, millions of gallons of water are rusting its bowels from the inside out.

After serving our nation in World War II and Vietnam, the ship retired to Charleston Harbor as the focal point of the Patriots Point Naval and Maritime Museum. It's a source of pride, a beacon of freedom, and, now, an overwhelming reminder of our state's economic woes.

When the Yorktown steered into its Mt. Pleasant berth 35 years ago, its arrival came with the formation of the Patriots Point Development Authority (PPDA) and the purchase of 367 acres of land, including three miles of water frontage. Purchased through the federal Land and Water Conservation Fund, the land's use was intended to provide funding for the PPDA and to be available for public use.

Today, the bulk of the property is occupied by long-term leaseholders: a golf course, a resort hotel and marina, and the College of Charleston's athletic fields. The PPDA, meanwhile, faces a gargantuan mountain of debt and repair bills. The Yorktown needs a projected $100 million in repairs, while the museum's second ship, the destroyer USS Laffey, is paying rent at a dock in North Charleston with nowhere to go. The PPDA is unable to repay a $9 million loan from the state for its repairs because in August, the federal government denied a grant request to pay it back. While the Clamagore and Yorktown continue to rust, in 2009 the U.S. Coast Guard Cutter Ingham was given away to a museum in Key West to avoid further maintenance costs.

click to enlarge Jim Morrow, a WWII veteran and Patriots Point volunteer, believes the USS Yorktown saved his life during the war on more than one occasion - HUNTER MCRAE
  • Hunter McRae
  • Jim Morrow, a WWII veteran and Patriots Point volunteer, believes the USS Yorktown saved his life during the war on more than one occasion

The PPDA's money problems stem from its creation. A budget for maintenance was never incorporated into the museum's master plan — a huge oversight. Put a giant hunk of steel in saltwater and it's going to need upkeep.

Amidst the ship's financial turmoil, Patriots Point's leaders have done little to instill public confidence. Three executive directors have stepped down in four years, one over sexual improprieties and conflict with its board of directors. The U.S. Navy, the state government, and South Carolina's most influential politicians have criticized the PPDA's leadership.

"If there's ever been gross — I do mean gross — mismanagement of anything that I've ever seen in the state of South Carolina, it's been what's happening at Patriots Point," U.S. Rep. James Clyburn told the Charleston Regional Business Journal in August, explaining his lack of support for the $20 million federal grant.

If the zip codes of visitors are any indication, perhaps federal dollars instead of local taxes should be used pay for the museum's upkeep. The Yorktown doesn't bring in penguins and albino alligators for seasonal exhibits, so once a local has toured it once, they're less likely to fork over the $18 admission fee again and again. But the ship is in our care, and it's the Palmetto State's problem.

"It's more than just a museum to the volunteers and veterans," says former Patriots Point Education Director Ned Forney. "It's a sad story because Patriots Point is past hope. I think in its current state it will cease to exist."

The Yorktown earned the nickname "the Fighting Lady" in World War II, garnering 11 battle stars during the war. The ship was a key factor in our victory in the Pacific. Jim Morrow, a WWII veteran and Patriots Point volunteer, attributes his survival in part to the aircraft carrier. Many of his friends lost their lives during the campaigns fought in the Philippines. On multiple occasions, Morrow believes that one of the ship's airplanes may have dropped a bomb or strafed an area, saving his life.

When the Yorktown was pushed into its place in 1975, Morrow looked on with pride from the shore. Tugboats blasted water into the air, boats filled the harbor, and proud Charlestonians cheered and celebrated. The divisive Vietnam War had just ended, but it was also a time when much of the population still remembered WWII, a conflict that cost more than 60 million lives worldwide.

click to enlarge PPDA's John Hagerty is a believer in Mac Burdette - HUNTER MCRAE
  • Hunter McRae
  • PPDA's John Hagerty is a believer in Mac Burdette

That sort of war, and the patriotism it invokes, are lost in an era when the motivations behind our military campaigns are increasingly questioned. Still, it's not difficult to see the importance of a ship like the Yorktown to "the Greatest Generation."

But is it important enough to put millions of tax dollars into the aging Yorktown in the 21st century? Is the vessel worth saving? What other options does the PPDA have? Dismantling or sinking a 888-foot long ship covered in lead paint could prove to be as expensive as repairing the aircraft carrier's deteriorating exterior. Each possibility possesses its own set of problems.

Boat owners joke that their boats are just holes in the water that they throw money in to. Unfortunately for South Carolina taxpayers, this particular hole has been growing, and it's fed with public money.

Between the Devil and the Deep Blue Sea

"In my mind, everything is background noise except the principal fact that when Patriots Point was established, they did one very good thing and one not so good thing," explains PPDA Chairman of the Board John Hagerty. "The one thing they did not do was set aside the money to pay for the holes in the steel that salt eats. The very good thing they did was to link (the Yorktown) to some extraordinarily valuable land."

A simplified view of Patriots Point's overwhelming conundrum could be the kind of thinking required to save it. The ships are a gigantic financial liability, and the land is among the most valuable undeveloped waterfront property on the East Coast. The solution sounds as easy as a two-piece puzzle.

Of course, it's never that cut-and-dry. Patriots Point didn't find itself the subject of politicians' fury solely over a lack of foresight in 1975. Rather, a stream of bad publicity spewing from the ship's executive offices has cast the PPDA in such a poor light that interactions with the press are now carefully handled. Neither lame duck Executive Director Dick Trammell nor prominent board member Susan Marlowe chose to speak with the City Paper, instead referring all questions to Hagerty.

Perhaps they're wise — the truth has been downright dirty.

In 2007, after seven years at the ship's helm, former Executive Director David Burnette resigned over allegations of improper sexual conduct. A subsequent SLED investigation turned up pornography on his work computer.

Burnette was replaced by Gen. Hugh Tant III, a decorated Army veteran known as "the Dancing General" for his grooving gait around the Pentagon's halls. Tant resigned after less than a year on the job. His appointee to the director of tourism and business development position, tourism expert Dick Trammell, stepped into the executive director job in September 2009.

Trammell seemed well-liked, but some were not pleased with his tenure, including state Sen. Glenn McConnell. The senator voiced his opinion about the state of the PPDA in a July 23 letter to the Legislative Audit Council.

"Over the last several years, I have become increasingly concerned about where Patriots Point is headed," wrote McConnell. In the letter, he raises concerns about the PPDA's compliance with the Freedom of Information Act and misuse of private executive sessions. McConnell listed 19 questions and concerns he wanted answered, requesting a complete audit of the PPDA's finances.

Subsequently, less than a year after taking over, Trammell became the third director in three years to resign. Hagerty referred to the problems with successive directors as a "tumultuous pattern."

On Oct. 26, PPDA announced that former Mt. Pleasant Town Administrator Mac Burdette had been chosen to take over the job. He begins work this week.

The decision to hire Burdette came a week after the board invited Medal of Honor recipient Gen. James Livingstone to speak at an October special session meeting, during which he admonished them to take their time finding a respectable director through a national search.

"My sense is that we are at a crossroads," Livingstone told the board. "We've got one shot to do this first class. Without the right leadership and confidence on the part of the community, I think we're on a sinking ship."

click to enlarge Developer Vince Graham has major plans for Patriots Point - HUNTER MCRAE
  • Hunter McRae
  • Developer Vince Graham has major plans for Patriots Point

Acknowledging that the $80,000-$120,000 salary range allotted by the state for an executive director may not be enough to attract a CEO with the influence to raise capital and the poise to handle a crisis, the board instead acted quickly, choosing a local candidate who perhaps might be most suited for facilitating the development of the PPDA's land for profit.

In his 25 years as town administrator, Burdette has overseen Mt. Pleasant's growth from a town of 22,000 with a budget of $5 million to a population of 70,000 with $65 million in annual expenditures. "He is a guy we know and that we've seen perform extraordinarily well under pressure," says chairman Hagerty. "Mac would stand out quite well in a national search. I don't know if you could do better."

Gen. Livingstone says he's a "big fan" of Burdette but sees a difficult challenge ahead for the former town administrator who is now faced with "finding a way to be an entrepreneur" and generating money for the Yorktown.

"I don't know if it's a long-term fix or a short-term fix," says Livingstone. "I still believe they should have done a national search, and I think [Burdette] would certainly have been a strong candidate. But I think a national search would have created a wave of added confidence to the process. If they could have demonstrated that they had looked all over the country for the best man for the job, then that would have given [Burdette] some momentum that's going to take awhile to generate."

Hagerty says that the board is still seeking a pay increase for the director from the state, as well as the possible addition of a second director, splitting the duties between overseeing the property and the ship.

Upstream and Into the Wind

Trammell's lasting accomplishment as director may have been saving the USS Laffey from sinking. The Laffey's hull had eroded to a paper-thin layer and sprung several leaks. Patriots Point borrowed $9.2 million from the state to dry dock the ship, with the intention of paying it back with a $20 million federal grant.

Rep. Clyburn balked at the grant request, and it never came through. Unable to pay back the state by the scheduled amount of time, the PPDA's credibility sank, and the Laffey is currently paying $11,250 per month rent on Shipyard Creek. It's not open for public tours.

The PPDA's land is perhaps their only legitimate reason for optimism. With attendance down to 264,000 people in 2008-2009 (a 20 percent decrease from the previous decade), admission fees aren't sufficient to meet budget needs. Commissions and leases held on the Patriots Point property contribute 22 percent to the budget, but with total annual income at $8.65 million in 2009, revenue doesn't come close to fixing the ship's deteriorating hulls.

The extent of the PPDA's need for money came to light last January, when they briefly considered a recommendation by the National Monument Foundation to construct a male counterpart to the Statue of Liberty in Charleston harbor.

"Surprisingly, I enjoyed it," says board chair Hagerty of those discussions and the public's amused response. "Whether you liked the statue or didn't like the statue, it got people talking about Patriots Point. Apathy is our worst enemy."

The most recent ideas arrived in the form of a $330,000 PPDA-commissioned master plan by consulting firm AECOM. Local developer Vince Graham and his company, the I'On Group, contributed to the plan. Their concept calls for the mixed-use private development of Patriots Point's 367 acres, including parks, performance art spaces, and a harbor-front trail along the three miles of shoreline. The plan also includes 175 freestanding homes and condos and townhomes built as densely as 50 dwellings per acre along the water, totaling 2,000 to 3,000 homes. The proposal envisions upwards of 1 million square feet of retail space, several new hotels, and the rebranding of Patriots Point as "Mt. Pleasant's Peninsula," with an eye for creating a waterfront community akin to those in Mystic, Conn., and Annapolis, Md.

Developing a harbor-front area the same size as the land south of Broad Street certainly makes developers salivate, but if any area builder can privately develop public land and end up winning awards for it, it's Graham. The I'On developer has posted a series of YouTube videos describing the land's potential, while the AECOM study says that it plans to construct "the finest front porch in the South."

At the October board meeting, Graham spoke about the fate of aircraft carriers like the Yorktown. "Do deteriorating museum exhibits honor the men and women who served in the armed forces?" he asked. "Does it provide a proper example to our children when exhibits and memorials are allowed to deteriorate? Would 'the Greatest Generation' wish to saddle future generations with large unfunded liabilities?"

Yorktown volunteer Tony Forlano, a Vietnam veteran, questions the wisdom of selling public land for residential use. Forlano works at the ship's information desk greeting visitors from all over the world. He envisions the Yorktown as one part of an overall destination attraction and supports the expansion of food, entertainment, convention, and sports venues on the property.

"Synergy is the key to grouping all of the development projects for Patriots Point," says Forlano. "I lived in New York 25 years, and I never went to the top of the Empire State Building. I think it would be that way with residents living at Patriots Point. They might go once and never again. What we need to do is develop facilities that can be marketed to outsiders, to bring outside money to Charleston."

Fellow volunteer Bob Webb, who founded the Sea Scout program at Patriots Point and manages the volunteer website, worries that building 2,000 residences and a shopping center will spell the end of much of the Yorktown's educational outreach.

"This was not the original vision of its founders," says Webb. "The original vision was for education and youth development programs. Commercializing Patriots Point will kill current programs."

The entire master plan could prove to be a moot point if easements on the property established at its founding hold up in court. Residents of the Bayview Acres neighborhood, adjacent to the golf course, will likely fight the development. Homeowner Peter Dodds worries a new neighborhood would lower his property value, and he sent a letter to Sen. McConnell stating, "For the state of South Carolina to now tell these folks that this will become an intense residential development because of the inability of the PPDA to manage their finances is unconscionable."

The Land and Water Conservation Fund's easement on the golf course section of the property requires that before building on the land, "all practical alternatives to the conversion [should be] evaluated and rejected on a sound basis." It also necessitates a swap for other land of "at least equal fair market value" in a "reasonably equivalent location," a potentially tough thing to find considering the impressive potential value of Patriots Point's waterfront property.

A second easement, signed with the Department of Natural Resources in 1998 for 25 years, protects 21 acres of maritime forest and marshland on the property. The parcel is the cornerstone of what Cape Romain Bird Observatory Director Nathan Dias called "one of the most important sites for migratory birds" on the Eastern seaboard in a Post and Courier editorial opposing the master plan.

DNR spokesman Brett Witt says that agreement should preclude any development on the acreage until 2023, when it will be up to the PPDA to renegotiate if they choose to do so.

Developer Graham says that details of easement swaps and negotiations with current leaseholders are still a long way off, and that the current master plan is simply a draft to begin sharing ideas.

"What I've been saying all along is that the vision has to be mutually beneficial for all the parties: for the leaseholders, for the town of Mt. Pleasant, and for the state," says Graham. "[Patriots Point] is a lynchpin, a keystone piece that could help with transit and park networks and livability. I think you could do a model post-industrial urban waterfront neighborhood. It could be downtown Mt. Pleasant."

Even the most progressive, eco-friendly residential plans at Patriots Point will likely be met with stiff opposition. Bob Webb's opinions reflect those of his fellow volunteers. He envisions Patriots Point adding revenue through interactive exhibits, moving away from the static displays currently on board the ship. His ideas include a 19th century maritime village with opportunities to learn forgotten skills and a renewed effort to move the Hunley submarine to the site.

Visitors echo those sentiments. The Sanderses of Texas said they'd return on future trips to Charleston if new exhibits are added, specifically mentioning realistic enactments of what life on the ship was like, complete with stories of Navy life at sea from the volunteer veterans.

Without profiting from its land, Patriots Point would still need government assistance to pay for the looming repairs, even with a giant increase in the number of visiting students and Scouts. But the attraction's most valuable asset — land — is owned by every South Carolina taxpayer, and selling it off to save the Yorktown may be a Hail Mary call we'd later regret. And with waterfront condos sitting empty just down the street, is the whole plan a fantasy that would end up generating even more debt?

Charting the Course

Mac Burdette will have his hands full when he takes over the helm at Patriots Point this month, but it's a job he says he wouldn't have taken if he didn't have a vision for its success.

"We're not selling buggy whips. We're selling something that's easily marketable, in my opinion, especially in a tourist economy," explains Burdette. "I think the glass is three-quarters full."

Patriots Point has been home to some success stories recently. The Yorktown unveiled a new marine biology education center this year, making it even more attractive for field trips and visiting Scout troupes. Last month, the ship hosted the 2010 National Medal of Honor convention, bringing the nation's most celebrated war heroes to Charleston. Promoters have begun to utilize the space as well, putting on major concerts from the likes of Big Boi, Steel Pulse, and Pretty Lights in the Yorktown's shadow.

That sort of progress can help increase awareness, visitors, and revenue, but it won't pay for a $100 million dry dock for the Yorktown, the conservative estimate based on the cost to dry dock the USS Intrepid in New York. But unlike the Yorktown, the Intrepid wasn't stuck in 26 feet of pluff mud. It's possible that a $16 million coffer dam around the ship could slow the deterioration and allow restoration work to occur in the water, but that process isn't without its environmental ramifications for the surrounding marsh (nor, for that matter, is digging it out of the mud, dismantling it, and recycling it or doing nothing and allowing it to continue disintegrating).

The land controlled by the PPDA is appraised with a potential value of $150 million, enough to repair the Yorktown and move ahead with the master plan. PPDA chairman Hagerty says that regardless of the decisions made, if the ship is to be kept, a portion of the annual budget, around $5 million, should be set aside for maintenance.

Or perhaps the ship should be taken to sea and disposed of. Hagerty says that giving the USCGC Ingham away saved the PPDA $15 million, and he favors getting rid of the USS Laffey as well, despite the $9.2 million that has been spent on its repairs. Hagerty, an attorney who handles land transactions for timber company MeadWestvaco, says the PPDA needs to be run like a business, assessing liabilities and assets and proceeding ahead with a balanced plan.

The first order on the agenda, says Hagerty, is restoring the public's trust, an objective he hopes Burdette's hiring will accomplish. The new director echoes his faith in the board of directors, all of whom he believes have demonstrated a keen business savvy in their own careers (Note: Gov.-elect Nikki Haley will be appointing new members in 2011). He adds that in his role as town administrator, the planning staff "rolled its eyes" at the thought of 2,000 dwellings at Patriots Point. Utilizing the land, says Burdette, will be integral to saving the museum, but it's not his primary motivation.

"The mission of Patriots Point is what whets my appetite and makes me want to do more than sit on the front porch," he says. "In a time like this, when the country has a lot of challenges, I think we need some inspiration, and I think that Patriots Point is one place that's kind of universal in that regard."

Tourists like Bill and Peggy Cocher come for the history and the national pride. They don't see the problems at Patriots Point. The Pennsylvania couple included the museum on their October Charleston vacation simply because they'd never been on an aircraft carrier.

"It was as immense as I thought," says Peggy, whose highlight was seeing an exhibit with the mock bags of dough used when the ship's kitchen would cook 10,000 chocolate cookies in one batch.

Dee McDonald, an Easley, S.C., resident, recently toured the ship for the third time, visiting exhibits like the boiler room she hadn't had a chance to reach in previous trips. She says she'll be back again. And so will others. After all, where else can you sit in the cockpit of an F9F Cougar and imagine you're on a mission in the Korean War?

From the flight simulator ride to walking the length of a submarine's interior, Patriots Point's value as an attraction is unique. And then there are the views of Charleston Harbor from the USS Yorktown's flight deck.

If you're a local who has never been onboard the Fighting Lady, consider a trip. It's well worth it. And, for the time being, the crowds will likely be small. But, hopefully, that will soon change.


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