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South Portland finds money for stop-gap repairs to Liberty Ship Memorial

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South Portland finds money for stop-gap repairs to Liberty Ship Memorial

SOUTH PORTLAND — Today, Bug Light Park is home to a grassy field leading up to the Portland Breakwater Lighthouse.

But during World War II, a colossal shipyard buzzed with thousands of workers who built 236 Liberty Ships between 1941 and 1945.

In 2001, the Liberty Ship Memorial – a 35-foot tall replica of one of the WWII cargo ship's frames – was built at Bug Light Park to commemorate those workers, as well as the servicemen who served on the Liberty Ships and elsewhere in the theaters of WWII.

Now the memorial is in need of a five-figure face lift. Rust spots and bubbles have appeared on its frame, alongside patches of mismatched paint from when the city has had to cover up graffiti. Text on some of the five informational murals have become obscure, thanks to the harbor's salty air. The concrete foundation is starting to crack.

"These ships saved England," said J.R. Garfield of Woodbridge, Va., who visited the memorial on Monday. Garfield and his wife, Judy, were passengers on the Glory Carnival cruise ship docked in Portland.

"I didn't even know it was here until we pulled up," he said. "I think this is very cool. It's a neat idea."

Garfield and his wife had just disembarked from a charter bus at the park and made their way immediately to the park's Liberty Ship Memorial. The looked up at the structure and read from the five murals that describe the history of the ships and South Portland's role in their production.

Garfield said he is a WWII history enthusiast, and that while he is no expert, he was familiar with the Liberty Ships. He was excited to see the memorial when his charter bus pulled into the parking lot at Bug Light Park.

City Manager Jim Gailey said there's rarely a day when the memorial doesn't attract visitors like the Garfields. Though the city doesn't keep park attendance estimates, tour buses regularly stop at Bug Light Park, many from the cruise ships that dock in Portland Harbor. People often come for the lighthouse and end up visiting the Liberty Ship Memorial.

"Everyone loves to hit the lighthouse, and having the liberty ship monument there really gives someone from the outside an understanding of the history of South Portland," Gailey said. "There's very few things left down there that tell us the story.”

More than a year ago, the city started exploring ways to repair the memorial. An original plan called for addressing the hull, concrete base and informational murals. One bid came in at $69,000, which the city deemed too expensive. Another plan was crafted; it only addressed the repair and refinish of the steel hull, and attracted three bids.

The low bid didn't meet the request advertised by the city. A second bid, from Theodore Logan & Son, of Portland, came in at nearly $38,000. On Monday, the City Council approved that bid, but first had to find the money to pay for the repair and repainting.

The wife of a former Liberty Ship builder made an anonymous donation of $25,000 in General Electric stock to the city to fund upkeep of the memorial. But a stipulation attached to the gift means only interest from the stock can be spent; it currently totals only about $2,500.

On Monday, councilors agreed to take money from undesignated funds in the budget (and planned for city staff to address the concrete repairs), but not before deciding to look for creative ways to avoid that outcome in the future.

Councilor Tom Blake, who teaches History of Maine at Southern Maine Community College and often gives tours at the Liberty Ship Memorial, said Tuesday that the memorial site means the structure will always "take an extra-heavy beating."

"I'd bet that within 10 years we'll be back again dealing with the same issue,” Blake said. “That's why we wanted to come up with a long-term solution instead of having to go back to the taxpayers every year.”

Blake lamented the lack of a master plan for Bug Light Park, and said the city should put a donation booth there to boost the Liberty Ship Memorial maintenance fund. He also said the City Council should help create a Friends of Bug Light Park organization that could spearhead efforts to raise money for the park.

“If we can get that endowment up to $250,000, we'd have 10 times as much money" available as we have now, Blake said. "I think by reaching out, we can make that grow.”

Councilors on Monday agreed to hold a workshop before the end of the year to come up with a plan for funding future repairs at the memorial and at Bug Light Park.

Mario Moretto can be reached at 781-3661 ext. 106 or mmoretto@theforecaster.net. Follow him on Twitter: @riocarmine.