Forecaster Forum: Portland's decision on USS JFK lacks leadership, wisdom
I’m writing this on the 50th anniversary of President John F. Kennedy’s inaugural address. This is also the day after the Portland City Council unanimously voted against supporting the mere “consideration” of hosting the USS JFK aircraft carrier to serve as a floating museum in Casco Bay. And, it’s the day that I’m resigning my position as the CEO/executive director of the USS JFK Museum organization.
In the days, months and years to follow, there will be ample time to discuss and debate the wisdom of terminating this project. Time might convert some current foes of the project to fans through some combination of revisionist history and political hindsight. Depending upon what ultimately happens to the proposed USS JFK site on the waterfront, I can imagine a time when a newspaper editorial writer may write these words:
“The USS JFK was a small ship not much bigger than a few basketball courts that represented an opportunity for the city of Portland – and the Portland City Council were a group of political lightweights with the vision and political courage of a team of mice looking through a foggy broken lens constructed from self-interest and self-doubt absent any discernible measure of true leadership or collective wisdom.”
Maybe. Maybe not.
For me, the most disappointing aspect of this entire process of trying to host the USS JFK here in Portland is not the end result of the council voting against it – but from the “public” input before, during and after the City Council meeting.
The many people who voiced their support for the project did so with a common and universally consistent theme: the USS JFK would boost Portland’s economy, attract thousands of new visitors and be an honor for the city. It could be great for us, the community of Portland.
The majority of the people who spoke against it (the stated basis for the Portland City Council decision) followed an equally common and universally consistent theme: obstructed views, and that's bad for the community of me.
By our estimation, less than 150 residents near the Ocean Gateway area would have had their views obstructed in any way by the USS JFK docking plan. In contrast, we also projected that 225,000 visitors each year would have had their views of our beautiful harbor greatly enhanced while contributing an estimated $9.6 million annually in new spending.
The indirect benefits (increased cruise ship visits due to the added attraction, significant conventions associated with military reunions, 20,000-plus school children from other states visiting, etc.) would have quadrupled the annual direct benefits. Over the 20-year plan to host the USS JFK, just the direct economic benefit to Portland was projected to be $192.7 million.
In Washington, D.C., Augusta, Portland, and in Yarmouth, where I am an elected town councilor, we are all gripped by the phenomena of “me” in regard to public policy and community issues. In Yarmouth, we are lucky to get more than three members of the public to attend meetings where issues associated with a $30 million-plus budget are being reviewed. Yet a dozen people will show up to vigorously debate a street light being removed from their neighborhood to conserve energy.
As individuals and to a great extent as a country, I fear that we have lost our way in regard to personal sacrifice in pursuit of the common good. The new operating system seems to be “... my interests are commonly good.”
The negative aspect of a few hundred people's scenic view while jogging near the Eastern Promenade was given significant weight in the decision-making process. Yet, Portland’s incredible military history was seemingly discounted. Thousands of men and women throughout Maine have defended our liberty and our freedoms since the birth of our nation, 244 Liberty ships were built in South Portland during World War II, no fewer than eight forts still exist today in Casco Bay, and just north of Portland, Bath Iron Works is one of the largest employers in the area and one of the largest shipbuilders for the Navy. Yet, many opponents of the USS JFK cited the military context of the ship as being another negative inconsistent with Portland’s image.
The USS JFK Museum project here in Portland was not terminated by the Portland City Council because the ship was “too big.” It was not terminated because the financial risk to the community was too big – escrow funds and financial guarantees would have been provided before the USS JFK came within 100 miles of Portland, eliminating any potential cost to the city. Nothing big was required of the Portland City Council at this phase of the process. This project failed because of smallness. Individual smallness in regard to selfish interests, and institutional smallness in regard to the vision of the Portland City Council. And beyond those two groups, we are all to blame.
It’s been exactly 50 years since President Kennedy’s urged Americans to “ask not what your country can do you for you; ask what you can do for your country.” It’s not an insignificant point that President Kennedy did not deliver that message as a request; it was a clear and powerful directive delivered as a morale imperative. And, 50 years ago, America listened.
In the town of Yarmouth, the city of Portland, throughout Maine and across our country, we all need to do a better job of heeding the spirit of JFK’s words. Not to host a “big” ship. But to reclaim the essence of our collective character as Americans.