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Battleship New Jersey operators work to boost attendance

Apr. 14, 2013 - 03:11PM   |  
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CAMDEN, N.J. — Battered by waves of state funding cuts and troughs of low attendance, the crew that operates Camden’s Battleship New Jersey has a new plan to blast the tourist attraction out of its predicament.

The Turret II Experience opens up a new world of heavy firepower to museum visitors by letting them load mock powder bags and pull the lever, sending a dummy artillery shell up to the massive turrets.

The visitors help target “the enemy” on a computer and pull the big brass trigger as a color screen shows footage of the mammoth 16-inch gun firing as the whole deck rumbles — just as it did when the New Jersey pounded Iwo Jima in World War II and Lebanon in the 1980s.

“They were mesmerized around the computer, and then we had them pull the trigger and fire the gun,” said Phil Rowan, the attraction’s executive director, after leading schoolchildren on the tour. It runs only on Sundays, though the ship is open every day from April 1 to Nov. 1.

“It’s a big brass trigger, you put your whole hand around it,” Rowan told The Philadelphia Inquirer “One of the kids said, ‘What did we hit, did we hit Philadelphia?’ I said, ‘It’s a simulation, we’re not blasting anyone out of the water.’“

Actually, Rowan said the New Jersey’s big 66-foot-long guns could strike targets some 23 miles away — about a third of the way across the state.

“We can’t reach Trenton, that’s a little too far,” he said, quickly adding, “They’re our friends,” in case anyone thought he was targeting the capital after the Christie administration sharply slashed state aid a couple of years ago.

Now, museum leaders are hoping the Turret II Experience — the launch of a five-year strategy to open up new sections of the battleship and offer interactive experiences — will attract visitors from beyond the immediate Philadelphia area to come see the historic battleship, launched in 1942 on the one-year anniversary of the Pearl Harbor attack.

Jason Frost, 42, an early visitor and former Navy photographer’s mate on the aircraft carrier Abraham Lincoln, was thrilled with the tour.

“To go inside that thing and to see the functionality of it, I was so blown away by the engineering, the mathematics, all the moving parts. It was crazy,” said Frost, an audio engineer who lives in Philadelphia and is friends with the exhibition’s curator.

He thought that because he was in the Navy he wouldn’t be impressed, but when the tour guide asked who wanted to shoot the gun, “my hand went right up — ‘I do, I do,’” he said.

The battleship’s annual 100,000 visitors are roughly half the attendance of its first few years. The ship was moved to the Camden waterfront in 2000 and opened to public tours in October 2001.

Declining tour visits and dwindling state financial aid have forced the battleship to cut its budget and staff.

“It’s a struggle every day to make ends meet and be creative and do things to stimulate business,” Rowan said. “The economy is still in the doldrums. People aren’t rushing out to the battleship with big paychecks.

“We’re limping along,” he said.

He hopes that the new tour and marketing strategy — targeting the 40 million people who live within a three-hour drive — will put the New Jersey on the right course.

This year the battleship is asking the state for $1.75 million, nearly three times last year’s $600,000 appropriation (though as usual the governor’s budget, as it stands, gives it nothing). Much of that would be for marketing in New York, Baltimore, Washington, and the middle of Pennsylvania.

The state contribution would represent about half of the ship’s annual budget, but that 50 percent would be reduced by 10 percentage points every year.

“In five years we won’t need the state,” said an optimistic Rowan.

The plan is to launch another new attraction next year, called Broadway, which is the 300-foot passageway that is the main route inside the ship and connects Turret II and Turret III. Organizers are hoping a grant from Camden County Open Space will pay the $50,000 needed to renovate the passageway.

After that, they hope to fix up the engineering and fire rooms way down in the bowels of the ship, a redo that will cost $450,000.

The attraction is also seeking a $2 million donation in exchange for naming rights to the 200-foot T-shaped pier next to the ship.

But the biggest source of revenue is schoolchildren, who are the engine that keeps the boat afloat.

“The two keys to our success are good weather and kids out of school,” Rowan said. “If I could get kids to stop going to school, we would do really well.”

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