RNC security to train on American Victory ship
TAMPA - She may be Tampa's best-kept secret as an attraction, but the SS American Victory will play a role in preparations for the August Republican National Convention. The 67-year-old World War II, Korean War and Vietnam War merchant ship will host a bomb detection and disposal training exercise later this month with the FBI, Transportation Security Administration and a half-dozen other law enforcement agencies participating. But prospects are uncertain the American Victory will benefit from many of the 50,000 RNC attendees in late August, whose headquarters will be around the corner in the Channelside District, in part because public-access security zones have yet to be revealed. The Republican Committee on Arrangements has no plans to include the American Victory in its schedule of events and participants, despite reports the RNC will focus on "The Greatest Generation" among its patriotic themes.Nor are opportunities readily apparent to enhance the American Victory's presence as a tourism attraction in a city seeking to add to its visitor draws — an unfulfilled goal since the ship came to Tampa in 1999. Neither the port authority nor the adjacent Florida Aquarium, both of which rely on local government support, participate in any sort of partnership that some American Victory board members say could help their mission. (The port authority provides a berth for $1,000 a month.) The aquarium supports anything that is able to bring more people and attention to Channelside, said Thom Stork, president and chief executive of The Florida Aquarium. "It's good for all of us," Stork said. "We have talked over the years about potential partnership opportunities with the Victory ship, but to date we have not been able to finalize a cohesive plan. We have been and are still willing to discuss options on how to promote this historic landmark." In mid-April, the American Victory's board launched a search to replace their president and executive director, who runs a local maritime consulting business and is seeking more time to devote to his professional activities after leading day-to-day operations with the American Victory for three years. The recruitment notice posts an ambitious goal: "The board of directors is committed to the creation of a world-class shipboard Maritime Museum and living memorial dedicated to honoring the men and women who built, sailed and provided service in America's maritime fleet." It's a daunting challenge, in particular for an historic ship whose mostly volunteer staff that numbers in the hundreds — a couple dozen are hardcore regulars — takes pride in getting it under way to sail around Tampa Bay at least twice a year. The most recent sailing in March drew more than 600 passengers. But the ship draws few visitors from the general public — about 25,000 a year with a price of $10 for adults. By contrast, more than 600,000 people visited the neighboring Florida Aquarium, whose facilities obscure the American Victory from passers-by on Channelside Drive. "It gets harder and harder to keep operating," said Bill Kuzmick, a U.S. Naval Academy graduate whose passion for the American Victory will keep him involved and on the board when he can be replaced as president and executive director. "We get no public funding and need community support to keep the ship here. Without much to drive foot traffic, we are slowly getting choked." Keeping the American Victory in operation costs about $25,000 a month. When the ship needs drydock repair every two and a half years, those costs add another $5,000 a month. Numerous benefactors, in particular Gulf Marine Repair president Aaron Hendry whose docks are visible across the channel, have defrayed significant costs, Kuzmick said. Kuzmick said interested parties from St. Augustine to South Korea have contacted the board to take over the ship, which operates as a nonprofit corporation. The ship is owned by the U.S. Maritime Administration, which authorizes its use in Tampa as a maritime attraction. The American Victory is one of four Liberty- and Victory-class ships on public display in the United States, paying homage to cargo ships produced in the hundreds by a wartime labor force that included plenty of women. It was built in 55 days, a stunning accomplishment given the complex, catacomb-like interior that provides visitors with a maze-like experience, navigating along narrow hallways and tiny stairways between the decks. The ambiance on parts of the tour of the ship is more akin to a visit to San Francisco's successful Alcatraz Prison attraction than a visit aboard the cruise ships that sail into the adjacent docks. Heavy metal – not the music – is everywhere, under foot, the walls, the engine, the giant cargo cranes and gunnery decks. Clearly, the merchant ship is not a sexy attraction like an aircraft carrier, board member Charles Harden acknowledges. But that's also the point, said Harden, a Navy veteran, shipbuilder and University of South Carolina graduate who at 86 remains spry enough to navigate the ship's interior like those half his age. Harden understands maritime heritage. His father was a shipbuilder in Norfolk, Va., who worked on the battleship USS Alabama; his grandfather was a steamboat captain in North Carolina until his death in 1892; and his great-grandfather built the steamboat his son ran. The American Victory provides a history lesson of the environment those in the merchant marine experienced while dodging enemy submarines to deliver cargo during World War II. It carried troops and equipment in the Korean War and supplied U.S. soldiers in Vietnam before being decommissioned in 1969. Navy gunners served on the ship because civilians were not permitted to operate the weapons. "We couldn't win the wars without what the merchant ships accomplished," Harden said. But the battle to become a vibrant part of Tampa's network of museums and commemorate the city's maritime history has proved to be a challenge since the ship arrived in 1999 from the James River Reserve Fleet in Virginia. The ship is out of sight, under-publicized and suffers from a lack of outside funding that some on the board acknowledge might have been a strategic error in not seeking a dozen years ago. "We are hidden in a terrible spot at great location," said Kuzmick of the Port of Tampa berth behind the Aquarium. A vinyl poster attached to a fence at the Channelside Drive traffic circle and a pair of smaller, worn out signs off Cumberland Avenue are the only indications of the attraction that sits in Ybor Channel adjacent to Cruise Terminal 3. "You are more likely to get run down by a garbage truck coming around a corner than getting a glimpse of the ship," Kuzmick said. Highway officials denied a request to place a huge ship's propeller as a centerpiece in the middle of the traffic circle to direct attention to the ship. Believing the propeller might have been a distraction to motorists, officials instead approved relocating a downtown sculpture dubbed "The Exploding Chicken" to the same place, though that has not happened. The security training that's scheduled for four days next week will involve finding two explosive devices, one hidden in the interior and one on the outside of the ship, to hone operations for the RNC that's taking place on the waterfront. But that brings in no revenue, either. Nevertheless, the volunteers – some of whom are World War II veterans – are not of a mind to give up. "We just need some cooperation from those who might be able to help," said Earl Quenneville, a retired, 84-year-old architect and Yale graduate who served in the Navy. Some of the inspiration comes from the late Pan American-Grace Airways pilot Bill Krusen, who volunteered with the maritime attraction in recent years until his death at age 91 last month. "Bill always contributed to the community," Harden said of the Florida Aviation Hall of Fame member. "He pointed out how close we are to Cuba. He always thought we could sail there in the American Victory. Maybe we will."
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