Bring public to table on Olympia proposal

info@islandpacket.comAugust 2, 2013 

The USS Olympia, right, a National Historic Landmark, is in need of extensive repairs. The current owner is seeking a new home for the vessel, and a local group wants to bring it to the Port of Port Royal.


If someone is willing to put up $34 million to place the historic USS Olympia in the town of Port Royal, go for it.

But that's only if the gift includes money to maintain and operate it in the years ahead, not just get it here from Philadelphia, and only if it fits into the long-term goals for its proposed location.

A local contingent has become one of two finalists nationally to take the ailing ship off the hands of the Independence Seaport Museum in Philadelphia because that museum can no longer afford to maintain it.

The local group recently said a "very private individual" is willing to put up $34 million to get the USS Olympia to Port Royal. Assuming that amount is available -- the donor hasn't been identified -- the money would be used to purchase a dry dock for the ship and pay for $1.2 million in marketing and engineering studies. The group hopes the state will donate seven acres at the Port of Port Royal.

While the ship of Spanish-American War fame could help Beaufort County better share its amazing history, placing it in a proposed dry dock at the port would change years of policy on the future of the port property.

So deeply entrenched is that policy at the town and state levels that a change to make way for the ship might not be possible.

When the port closed in 2004, the state ordered the S.C. Ports Authority to sell the site with its 52 buildable acres. The town has hashed out a master plan for redevelopment of the entire site, with much public input over the years, and with input from would-be buyers more recently. The Ports Authority says it is bound by law to sell it in one piece. Efforts to sell it have so far been unsuccessful.

Town leaders think a waterfront museum highlighted by the USS Olympia would be good for the economy by drawing visitors. That is enticing, but how would it play against the plan calling for homes, businesses and public spaces throughout the port tract?

The new proposal must fit into the whole. And if that is going to change, a great deal of public discussion about the town's future development and disclosure about the business plan for the proposed museum, needs to take place.

Having the Olympia here presents opportunities and challenges. Questions must be answered about the long-term fiscal well-being of the venture and the role local governments might ultimately be asked to play.

The Ports Authority, Town Council and the public need to hash out the pluses and minuses.

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