Effort to bring aircraft carrier to Portland waterfront hits strong headwind

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PORTLAND — Efforts to bring the USS John F. Kennedy to the Portland waterfront, where it would become a permanent museum and convention center, ran into opposition at a City Council workshop Monday night.

Several councilors spoke against granting a memorandum of understanding for berthing space for the mothballed 1,050-foot aircraft carrier at the planned cruise ship mega berth at the Ocean Gateway Terminal.

Portland native and Buxton resident Richard Fitzgerald, an associate director of JFK for ME, the group working to secure the carrier from the U.S. Navy, said the memorandum would allow the group to proceed to the next stage of the application process.

Fitzgerald said the memorandum has already been approved by the Navy and the group only needs the council’s OK to proceed with other requirements, such as environmental studies and fundraising. 

“This is a major hurdle for us to get into Phase III,” he said. “We’re asking you to give us a chance.”

But four of the eight councilors at Monday’s workshop indicated they would not support the proposal if it comes to a formal vote, citing overwhelming opposition from their constituents.

Councilors said the 19-story carrier is simply too large to have a permanent presence on the waterfront and questioned the viability of the group’s business plan, and the city’s subsequent liability if the nonprofit sinks. 

Fitzgerald tried unsuccessfully to allay concerns over the size of the carrier, whose mast rises 192 feet above the water line, by showing scaled renderings of the ship docked on the waterfront.

While the ship’s height has been compared to the Portland Observatory on Munjoy Hill, which stands 220 feet above sea level, Fitzgerald said the flight deck only rises 60 feet above the water and the control stands 120 feet.

Councilors, however, were not convinced.

“(The carrier) isn’t consistent with the Eastern Waterfront Master Plan,” Councilor John Anton said. “I also have doubts about the business plan.”

Fitzgerald estimated it would cost roughly $70 million over a 10-year period to bring the carrier to Portland and to retrofit it for a museum, convention center and restaurants.

While in-kind donations now total “well over” $100,000, Fitzgerald said the group has only secured $2,300 in cash for the project and hopes to secure bank loans for the much of the costs. 

Fitzgerald noted, however, that the project would be generating its own revenue for five of those years, attracting a projected 225,000 visitors a year.

While Fitzgerald said fundraising has been stunted because the city hasn’t approved the location, Mayor Nick Mavodones said the council must treat the group like any other developer.

“There is a lack of information,” Mavodones said of the group’s financial capacity. “That worries me and gives me pause.”

Councilors Dave Marshall and Dory Waxman also expressed opposition. No one spoke in favor.

Portland is competing with Rhode Island for the carrier.

The Rhode Island group is promoting the late 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.

After the meeting, Mavodones said he isn’t sure when or if the memorandum would come to a council vote.

But Fitzgerald said he was neither discouraged, disappointed nor surprised by the council’s reaction. He vowed to continue efforts to bring the ship to Portland by meeting with the mayor and assistant city manager.

“Those discussions will lead to bringing the Kennedy to Portland Harbor,” he said.

Randy Billings can be reached at 781-3661 ext. 100 or rbillings@theforecaster.net

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A rendering by Dana Underwood of how the USS John F. Kennedy aircraft carrier, berthed next to the Ocean Gateway terminal, would look from Portland’s eastern waterfront.

A rendering by Dana Underwood of how the USS John F. Kennedy aircraft carrier would look in Portland Harbor when viewed from Bug Light Park in South Portland.

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