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PORTLAND — Two years after the city turned away the USS John F. Kennedy – and more than 20 years after the ship last dropped anchor in Portland Harbor – a small volunteer group believes the decommissioned aircraft carrier can still make its permanent berth in Portland.
The group called the USS John F. Kennedy Museum has been working since 2009. And it’s taking some unusual tacks to achieve its goal.
After competing with the Rhode Island Aviation Hall of Fame for rights to the U.S. Navy ship, the museum is now backing Rhode Island’s bid. “The goal is, one way or another, to have the JFK in New England,” museum founder and board member Richard Fitzgerald said.
But if the Navy isn’t satisfied that Rhode Island has a suitable harbor, financial resources or public support for the 46-year-old “Big John,” Portland would have another opportunity to present a bid – this time, aided by its former competitor.
Siting a mothballed carrier involves a long, multi-phase selection process. But with talks between the Navy and Rhode Island unsuccessful so far, Portland’s opportunity could happen in as soon as six months, according to Fitzgerald.
“Basically, we may get another ‘at bat’ soon,” he said.
In another unusual move, Fitzgerald is working to win support for his initiative from a similar museum in California.
Earlier this month, he purchased a rare medal commemorating the victory of another Navy ship, USS Hornet, over the British ship Penguin during the War of 1812.
The original medal, presented by Congress to Navy Capt. James Biddle in 1815, is now lost. But Fitzgerald has one of seven bronze copies that were later commissioned, and said it’s worth about $2,000. He plans to present it on loan to the USS Hornet Museum, in Alameda, Calif., later this year.
Fitzgerald hopes to leverage the endorsement of officials at the Hornet museum, site of a World War II carrier of the same name as the 1812 ship.
“This can only be good for them,” he said, “and for us.”
Fitzgerald, a Portland native, said he’s not related to the former president despite their similar names, and is not a military veteran. But his mother worked for the Navy on the Maine State Pier during World War II, and he speaks passionately about the city’s role in the war.
“In the age of the Internet, there’s a real danger that Americans, and people in Portland, may forget their own naval history,” he said. “The Kennedy is a reminder of that past.”
And he’s optimistic that his museum will be successful.
“The Navy knows what a great harbor it is, what a safe harbor it is,” Fitzgerald said. “And certainly President Kennedy, a Navy man, would have understood.”
But not everyone is so optimistic.
In 2011, the City Council unanimously refused to support a site for the JFK along Portland’s eastern waterfront, despite expressing general enthusiasm for the idea a year earlier.
In response to strong resident input, councilors cited concerns that the 1,052-foot ship would block views of the water and end up costing the city money.
Councilor Nicholas Mavodones Jr., who served as mayor at the time, said those concerns “probably remain” today.
Mavodones said the council had been worried about the lack of a business plan or specifics about how the JFK would be operated as a museum. While Fitzgerald has said such detail would have been premature, Mavodones said “the numbers just weren’t there.”
In addition, he said, he and other councilors heard “consistent opposition” to the museum from residents.
“I applaud (Fitzgerald) for what’s he trying to do … but I wouldn’t be optimistic,” Mavodones said.
Sarah Milliman, an East End resident strolling near the Ocean Gateway marine terminal Saturday, echoed that feeling.
“It sounds like a terrific idea, and I’m impressed someone is still trying to bring the ship here,” she said. “But I just can’t imagine the way it would dominate the waterfront.”
The USS John F. Kennedy enters Portland Harbor in 1989.
Richard Fitzgerald shows off the medal that will be presented to a West Coast museum honoring the USS Hornet.
A close-up of the medal, inscribed to Capt. James Biddle, commander of the first USS Hornet.