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Sailors hoping to visit a state-of-the-art Navy museum in Washington, D.C., in the next few years are probably out of luck, with a proposed public-private venture along the Potomac dead in the water and the Navy's plan for a new museum at the Navy Yard requiring budget support and private fundraising that may never materialize.
The Navy is recommending that the proposal for a waterfront Navy museum blocks from the National Mall be sidelined in favor of a location in the northwest corner of the Navy Yard — one that would be outside the complex's secure perimeter, allowing easier public access.
The current National Museum of the U.S. Navy occupies 98,000 square feet in two buildings within the Navy Yard's perimeter and has a relatively low number of visitors annually. A new museum would take up more than 200,000 square feet at either location.
A Naval Facilities Command brief being circulated among Navy leadership demonstrated a level of wariness on the Navy's part to enter into an agreement with the National Maritime Heritage Foundation out of a concern for losing a degree of operational control of the facilities. The foundation submitted its proposal in September 2009.
The NAVFAC report, dated Dec. 1 and obtained by Navy Times, indicates the Navy would seek to "maximize Navy control over development and operational management of the museum." The report lists the lack of operational control and ownership of the building as "risk factors" involved in accepting the NMHF proposal.
There were a number of proposals for a national Navy museum being briefed to Navy leadership, said Lt. Cmdr. John Daniels, spokesman for Naval History and Heritage Command, the command in charge of Navy museums. Further comment would be premature because no decision had been made, Daniels said.
A source with intimate knowledge of the proposal said the Navy was offered full operational control over the waterfront building. The source said the report was based on an initial proposal only and that the foundation had subsequently offered a 51 percent ownership stake in the building, with first right of refusal over any use of the property, adding that the NAVFAC report made "all the worst assumptions" about the NMHF proposal.
The foundation's proposal was publicly supported by nine retired admirals, two former Navy secretaries — Gordon England and John Dalton — and prominent Washington politicians, including Del. Eleanor Holmes Norton and former Mayor Adrian Fenty.
The report concluded that any museum would be an expensive endeavor; cost estimates for the NMHF proposal over 30 years ranged from $384 million to $504 million. The upfront cost to the Navy would be about $78 million.
The Marine Corps paid about $30 million upfront for its museum in Quantico, Va., and the service continues to have tight control over the exhibits and message they convey, a model sources say the Navy wants to follow.
The Navy Yard site, located in a building known as "The Yards" would cost about $428 million over 30 years.
If the foundation's public-private proposal falls through, it is unclear when a museum could be built. Because the Defense Department cannot solicit donations, a private foundation would have to come forward or be created to take the lead in fundraising. The favored Yards location has no private partners lined up, according to the NAVFAC report.
The report estimates that a museum at The Yards would be open by the end of 2015. But that would most likely be contingent on private fundraising. Both the major service museum projects in the national capital region rely on public-private partnerships.
The Corps has partnered with the Marine Corps Heritage Foundation for its museum-related fundraising efforts since 1997; the National Museum of the Marine Corps opened its doors in 2006. The future Army museum is a joint endeavor with the Army Historical Foundation, a massive effort that began in 2000 when the foundation entered into an agreement with the Army to begin raising funds for a museum, according to the foundation's website.
The NAVFAC report is unclear on the funding for the Navy Yard location, but the 2015 timeline is based on "sole source approval." A request for comment from NHHC on what the potential funding source would be or if there was a potential private partner for the Navy Yard location was not returned by press time.
If the Navy is counting on Congress for the money, it may be in trouble.
A retired senior Navy official and supporter of the waterfront location, who spoke on background, said to get momentum behind such an ambitious project such as a national museum, a senior flag officer would need to step up, "lay their stars on the table" and secure the funds from increasingly stingy lawmakers, which would be politically risky.
The source went on to say that any museum project would face some big hurdles because, in a time of war, weapons systems and platforms are more important.
"You have to consider perceptions," the source said. "If Congress told them to do it and gave them some money, they'd do it. But what's going to have to happen is that the Navy is going to have to ask for money for this. And the previous hour they were asking money for Hornets, and the hour before that they were asking for money for ships.
"So Congress is going to say, ‘All right, Navy, make up your mind.'"