Group trying to bring battleship to Port Royal says it has $34 million pledged

mmcnab@beaufortgazette.comJuly 28, 2013 

The S.C. Olympia Committee, based in Port Royal, and the Mare Island Historic Park Foundation of California will cooperate on national fundraising to preserve the USS Olympia.

COURTESY OF INDEPENDENCE SEAPORT MUSEUM

The leader of a group hoping to bring a deteriorating Spanish-American War battleship to Port Royal says a secret donor has promised the stunning sum necessary to bring the ship to town.

Pete Richards, president of the South Carolina Olympia Committee, says a "very private individual" is willing to put up $34 million to get the USS Olympia to Port Royal. The donor's name, however, will not be revealed until much later in the process, Richards said.

Even with the money, there still would be hurdles to overcome. The committee has not received a response from the S.C. State Ports Authority, which owns the property where the group hopes to put a drydock, museum and park. Delays could sink the group's chances of getting the ship, Richards says.

The committee wants to make the Olympia, currently anchored in Philadelphia but in poor condition, the centerpiece of a museum along the Battery Creek waterfront.

The South Carolina group is one of two finalists bidding to purchase the ship. The other group would move the ship to Mare Island in Vallejo, Calif., about 40 minutes north of San Francisco. The current owner, Independence Seaport Museum in Philadelphia, announced in 2011 it was selling the ship because the museum could no longer afford to maintain it.

The donation from the person Richards says he can't yet identify would be used to purchase a drydock for the ship and pay for $1.2 million in marketing and engineering studies, Richards said.

The committee also hopes to obtain land between 11th and 12th streets, near Dockside restaurant. The land is owned by the S.C. Ports Authority and is occupied by several abandoned warehouses. It is up for sale, part of the Port of Port Royal that closed in 2004. The Ports Authority has been ordered, but unable, to sell it. Richards' group wants to obtain about seven of the 52 buildable acres on the port property.

Richards said he presented the museum concept to members of the Ports Authority board in the spring, hoping to have an agreement by Nov. 1, the next deadline in the ship's bidding process.

However, Ports Authority public relations director Allison Skipper said the authority hasn't received a formal offer to purchase the property from Richards or the committee.

Richards said Thursday no formal offer was exchanged at the meeting or in the months after it. The nonprofit group hopes the Ports Authority will donate the land to the group or to the town for development.

It doesn't appear those plans are possible, though. Skipper said the state law ordering the authority to sell the property requires it to sell it at fair market value. In January, a development agreement reached between the town of Port Royal and the Ports Authority also requires the property to be marketed for sale in its entirety, she added.

Richards said he hoped the committee and Ports Authority could begin more discussions on how to obtain the property to meet the November deadline

The January development plan limits the 52 acres of buildable land to 425 residences and no more than 250,000 square feet of business space.

Port Royal town manager Van Willis said the town supports the committee's plans, believing that the museum could be a catalyst for growth in the area.

Although the town could start infrastructure improvements, now that the development agreement is set, no buyer has surfaced for the vacant property. Last summer, a $17 million deal for the property with the Port Royal Development Group failed when financing fell through. The appraised price for the land was raised to $22.5 million in March.

Richards and the Olympia committee want to bring the Olympia to Port Royal to reaffirm the town's role in the Spanish-American War. Port Royal was home to the largest dry dock in the South then. Most naval ships headed to Cuba passed through the area.

The Olympia is one of the more decorated warships in the history of the U.S. Navy. In 1898, it served as the flagship of Commodore George Dewey's fleet during the Battle of Manila Bay, a battle that saw the destruction of Spain's Pacific fleet and the eventual U.S. seizure of the Philippines.

The South Carolina and California groups have collaborated in recent months to save the deteriorating ship. If neither site is able to obtain the ship, it likely will be sunk and made into an artificial reef, Richards said.

Follow reporter Matt McNab at twitter.com/IPBG_Matt.

Related content:

Port Royal, California groups to cooperate on preservation of USS Olympia, Apr. 10, 2013

Port of Port Royal sale price raised to $22.5 million, Mar. 19, 2013

Port of Port Royal development agreement approved, Jan. 9, 2013

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