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Group eyes berth at Portland's Ocean Gateway for JFK aircraft carrier

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Group eyes berth at Portland's Ocean Gateway for JFK aircraft carrier

PORTLAND — A group working to permanently anchor a nearly 19-story aircraft carrier in Portland Harbor has six months to complete a series of studies and stay in the running for what some consider the gem of the U.S. Navy.

Buxton resident Richard Fitzgerald, a Portland native, said he has been meeting with community groups about bringing the USS John F. Kennedy to the city's eastern waterfront, where it would become a museum and conference center.

The JFK was the last conventionally powered aircraft carrier in the U.S. Navy when it was decommissioned in March 2007. The Navy is giving it away to the community that proposes the best reuse plan for the ship.

Portland is competing with a group in Rhode Island. They have until February to complete the second phase of the selection process, including several environmental studies and choosing a location.

Fitzgerald said his 50-person group, JFK for ME, is pursuing permanent berthing for the 1,050-foot carrier at the so-called mega berth planned at Ocean Gateway.

So far, Fitzgerald said, there has been no resistance from city officials. "I take their silence as tacit approval," he said.

Mayor Nick Mavadones said the City Council would be scheduling a workshop, possibly as soon as September, to consider a memorandum of understanding for the proposed berth.

The City Council, as well as the state Legislature, have already passed general resolutions in favor of allowing the group to pursue the ship, which is currently docked in Philadelphia.

The council next would have to agree to the Ocean Gateways berth to allow JFK for ME to proceed to the final stage of the application process.

Mavadones predicted councilors would have many questions about the project, including environmental and siting issues, and whether the group's business plan is sustainable.

Since the proposed aviation and maritime museum would also have meeting space and convention halls, councilors may want to assess the potential impact on local hotels, which already offer these facilities, Mavadones said.

"The waterfront is such a visceral issue for people," he said, indicating many people have opposed the plan since it was first introduced this year. "There are a lot of questions the council would have."

Residents will get their first public opportunity to weigh in on the plan when the council takes up the memorandum of understanding.

Fitzgerald, 55, said he has held meetings with more than half a dozen community organizations, including the Waterfront Alliance, Harbor Commission and the Munjoy Hill Neighborhood Association.

He said he believes many concerns have been resolved.

Harbor Master Jeff Liick said that harbor commissioners did not raise any red flags about the project. But officials of the Munjoy Hill Neighborhood Association said residents were concerned about several aspects of the plan when it was presented in April.

MHNO member and past President Katie Brown said many residents were concerned about the effect on harbor views from having such a large ship in port permanently.

The ship stands about 192 feet from its waterline to the tallest mast. The Portland Observatory, in comparison, rises 220 feet above sea level.

"Many feel that visual access to the harbor and Casco Bay is sacred and particularly must be protected as much as a permanent semblance of a working waterfront," Brown said.

MHNO President Christina Feller said the association would not vote on endorsing the proposal, because group believes Rhode Island is likely to get the ship.

The Rhode Island group is promoting the former President John F. Kennedy's ties to the state in its application. Kennedy was married in Newport, R.I. – his wife's home town – in 1953. His nephew, U.S. Rep. Patrick Kennedy, D-R.I., has endorsed moving the ship there.

The Rhode Island group also seems to have a fundraising advantage. The group raised more than $10 million during a 12-year effort to get the USS Saratoga, but the Navy decided to scrap the ship. The group has transferred those funds to the JFK project.

But Fitzgerald predicted the Rhode Island group's failure to get the Saratoga, which was docked in the state, eight miles from its proposed berth, will reflect badly. He said he also believes the Rhode Island proposal has significant environmental problems, putting Portland in the lead.

"It won't happen," Fitzgerald said of the ship landing Rhode Island. "The Kennedy comes to Portland Harbor or it gets scrapped. We have the chance of a lifetime."

Fitzgerald said JFK for ME has received about $500,000 in pledges of support. He estimated the group will need about $235,000 in hand by the end of the year to complete its studies of market sustainability and potential revenue, and a formal business plan.

The entire project is estimated to cost about $80 million over a 10-year period, but Fitzgerald noted the museum would be open for five of those years and could pull in $45 million.

Fitzgerald and Mavadones also noted there are no city funds invested in the project.

"Those are not scary figures," Fitzgerald said.

One of the studies would focus on the environmental impacts of dredging. The ship draws about 33.5 feet of water, which would require removing between 50,000 and 100,000 cubic feet of ocean bottom.

The Navy could make its selection in early 2013. JFK for ME's tentative time line indicates site work would begin immediately and take a year to complete. The JFK would be towed to the harbor in 2014, where it would be restored before opening on Memorial Day 2015.  

Fitzgerald estimated the JFK will create more than 125 permanent jobs with a payroll of upwards $4 million and be a regional tourist attraction.

"She's the queen of the fleet," he said. "And we're going to get her."

Randy Billings can be reached at 781-361 ext. 100 or rbillings@theforecaster.net