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Forrestal bid hits snag: no place to dock in downtown

The group trying to bring the retired carrier to Tampa now must consider less attractive sites.

By STEVE HUETTEL

© St. Petersburg Times, published June 6, 2000


TAMPA -- A group that wants to bring the USS Forrestal to Tampa must find a new place to park the retired aircraft carrier, a major setback in its bid to receive the ship from the Navy.

The USS Forrestal Sea, Air, Space Museum Inc. had always planned to put the carrier at a site along the city's booming Channel District.

But Tampa Port Authority executives reaffirmed to group's chairman Monday what they have been saying for months -- that they weren't going to give up Metroport, now leased to a local ship repair company and that could be home to another terminal for the port's fast-growing cruise business.

After the face-to-face meeting, Forrestal chairman John Kercher said he had given up on the Ybor Channel berth and will explore other possible locations.

"There are too many competing demands (for Metroport), and we don't have the deep pockets to write the check," he said. "I'm very confident we will find a suitable site. If we can't, we'll have to tell the Navy that."

Losing the only location organizers have seriously considered for the Forrestal leaves the project listing as the Navy reviews Tampa's bid for the 1,086-foot-long carrier. Kercher expects the Navy will choose between proposals from Tampa and Baltimore this fall and hand over the ship by year's end.

One of the project's biggest backers, Tampa Tribune editorial page editor Edwin A. Roberts Jr., wrote last month that attempts to obtain the carrier would die if the Forrestal didn't end up at the berth near downtown Tampa.

"If the Forrestal is barred from the upper reaches of the channel, which is to say from easy access to the proliferating amenities in the expanding heart of the city, the attempt to get the vessel might as well be dropped," he wrote in a signed column published May 14.

Kercher and port executives pored over a map of Tampa Bay on Monday for places that could accommodate the ship, which draws 31 feet of water and has a 5.7-acre flight deck. They found five or six worth checking out, said Port Director George Williamson.

He and Kercher identified two possibilities: state-owned land on either end of the Sunshine Skyway bridge and port property on Port Redwing, an undeveloped peninsula just north of TECO Energy's Big Bend plant in south Hillsborough County.

None of the potential sites are near downtown Tampa, said Lori Rafter, a port spokesman.

Location was a big part of Metroport's appeal to early organizers. They expected the Forrestal would draw visitors from nearby attractions, including the Florida Aquarium, the Tampa Convention Center and Ybor City.

Consultants hired by the group pegged annual attendance at between 350,000 and 550,000. The museum would need 450,000 visitors a year to support payments on bonds expected to finance the $12-million project.

Estimates were based on berthing the Forrestal near downtown, Kercher said, and consultants would need to recalculate their numbers for a new location. Finding the site will just be another nagging delay in the 2-year-old effort, he said.

Metroport has always been where organizers envisioned berthing the Forrestal. After looking down at the site during a meeting at the private Tampa Club, Mayor Dick Greco wrote in a letter of support that the ship would "fit like a glove."

Not everyone was so excited once news of the project leaked out.

International Ship Repair & Marine Services leases Metroport from the port authority. The company employs as many as 400 workers at the berth and its headquarters across Ybor Channel.

The company is negotiating to buy land for a new yard on the other side of Hooker's Point in East Bay, largely because International Ship knows the Channel District is destined for entertainment venues and cruise ships, Williamson said.

Port officials are already planning a new cruise terminal just north of the aquarium, and Williamson wants to hold onto Metroport for when a fourth terminal is needed on Channelside Drive.

"We want to maximize our cruise business. I think that's a better use for this area," Williamson said Monday.

Navy officials asked the Tampa group 18 questions of its bid, Kercher said, and he has answers for all but two. Fundraisers haven't collected the $1.2-million in cash and pledges the Navy wants to see. He predicted that won't be a problem, but another site could be a show-stopper. "Until we resolve the location, we can't respond," he said.

-- Steve Huettel can be reached at (813) 226-3384, or at huettel@sptimes.com.

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