Operation Tourist Attraction
By Ron Donoho
The Fish Market—a seafood eatery that (as of now) doesn’t have a 68,000-ton next-door neighbor - has protested...
"People don’t go to a carrier of a mind to go to dinner afterward," says Wilson. "We’d love to have the families and children that might go to the museum, but let’s face it, kids don’t like seafood."
Uke says San Diego can learn from the mistakes made at other carrier museums — and thus prosper.
After retirement, life is supposed to be less tumultuous—especially for a distinguished Navy veteran. But in a flashback to the hurly-burly past of one such decorated retiree, a new conflict has arisen. This time the combatants aren’t world powers struggling for control of the Pacific theater. They’re public, private and nonprofit entities for and against the creation—and proposed location—of a San Diego Aircraft Carrier Museum.
The retiree is the U.S.S. Midway. The renowned 1,000-foot-long carrier didn’t take part in the seminal World War II battle for which it is named—it was commissioned on September 10, 1945, and the Battle of Midway took place June 3-6, 1942. But the Midway did serve during the Korean, Vietnam and Persian Gulf wars. In 1965, while deployed in the Gulf of Tonkin, Midway’s aircraft flew 11,900 missions over Vietnam. Most recently, in 1991, Midway-based planes flew more than 3,300 combat missions during Operation Desert Storm.
In April 1992, the Midway was permanently decommissioned. Nearly 50 years of service brought the carrier numerous honors, including the Presidential Unit Citation. But for the past four years, some have sought to persuade the Navy to allow the Midway to perform one last mission. Call it Operation Tourist Attraction.
Here is the best-case scenario presented by Alan Uke, the man in charge of San Diego Aircraft Carrier Museum Inc., the nonprofit corporation bent on bringing the Midway to town: In June, the Navy approves an application for the Midway to become a museum. The Port Authority votes in October to allow the giant carrier to be hauled here from Bremerton, Washington. It’s moored off downtown’s Embarcadero. Then the spiffed-up Midway opens on the Fourth of July in 1998 and attracts close to three-quarters of a million tourists annually.
Uke’s estimated $10 million dream is shared by Governor Pete Wilson, the State Senate, the San Diego City Council, the Chamber of Commerce, the Convention & Visitors Bureau, the Economic Development Corporation and the local Restaurant Association. It would seem that manned battle stations are unnecessary.
But the Restaurant Association’s thumbs-up wasn’t unanimous. The Fish Market—a seafood eatery that (as of now) doesn’t have a 68,000-ton next-door neighbor—has protested the plan. The Port Tenants Association (PTA) also has expressed some reservations. PTA Executive Director Dick Cloward generally supports the proposal, but he and Fish Market co-owner Bob Wilson are concerned about parking and view-blockage issues. Others wonder if the museum proposal should be postponed and later included in a master plan for North Embarcadero redevelopment. There’s also divided opinion on whether attendance
at downtown’s Maritime Museum will be hurt by the addition of another floating attraction.
These are legitimate concerns. But according to Uke, the concerns are being addressed. San Diego really needs a new attraction, he says. "We’ve been resting on our laurels. We haven’t been building nice things like this for a while. And downtown at the Navy Pier is the perfect place."
Uke is a scuba-diving entrepreneur. He founded his Underwater Kinetics business while still a sophomore at UCSD. The self-draining tank boot he invented for scuba gear went on to earn an 85 percent share of the U.S. market. Growing up in Santa Monica, Uke says, he watched Los Angeles become blighted as commercial buildings took over the skyline. "That’s the personal reason I want to see this museum get going here," he explains. "I don’t want what happened in L.A. to happen here."
In the past, cities have competed—often hotly—with one another to score ships decommissioned by the Navy. Back in 1993, the state legislature passed a bill that allowed San Diego to get the Midway without competition from L.A., San Francisco or any other California city. Uke says Honolulu and Seattle expressed some interest in the Midway, but San Diego was the only city to send in a 390-page application to the Secretary of the Navy.
The Port District gave conceptual approval to the museum plan late last year, but Melissa Mailander, senior environmental specialist for the Port, says an environmental review still must be completed before a final vote by commissioners.
Uke and his board of directors envision the Midway parked at the Navy Pier off North Harbor Drive between Broadway and F Street. Attractions within the museum would include:
# Dioramas of pre–World War II and World War II carrier-based aircraft. These exhibits—including interactive videos—would be located on the hangar deck.
# Actual World War II planes placed on the flight deck for hands-on experiencing.
# A theater with a 100-person capacity that would show films like Thirty Seconds over Tokyo, Top Gun and Midway, starring John Wayne.
# Touring exhibits featuring the history of the U.S. Marines, women and African-Americans in the military.
# Open areas on both the flight and hangar decks that will be available for special events and dinners, designed especially for meetings and convention groups.
Though it’s not expected to be created right away, plans also call for the eventual construction of a virtual-reality ride that would simulate the experience of takeoffs and landings on an aircraft carrier.
Sentimental support for the museum has been widespread. The Midway coming to San Diego is like "an old friend coming home," Mayor Susan Golding wrote in a letter to Uke. San Diego Councilman Byron Wear notes the carrier museum "can provide citizens and tourists a sense of the strong bond between the city and the U.S. Navy."
Reint Reinders, president and CEO of the San Diego Convention & Visitors Bureau, says the local tourism economy can use the shot in the arm that a new attraction would provide. "To survive and be healthy, you need to continue to add product," he says. "San Diego benefits greatly from the tourism industry. Something like this is our bread and butter."
But the bread would be buttered at the expense of others if the carrier is docked at Navy Pier, claims Bob Wilson, president of the L.A.-based Wilson-Duckett Development Company. Wilson, along with Alphonse DeAnda, owns seven Fish Market eateries—including a location about 200 feet from the proposed museum site.
Parking is not exactly in abundance downtown, notes Wilson. Fish Market patrons park in the metered lot on Tuna Harbor, directly in front of the restaurant. In 1996, 564,708 people dined at the Fish Market and the upstairs Top of the Market eateries. Aesthetics—and view-blockage issues—aside, Wilson says anyone visiting the museum would be naturally inclined to use the precious spaces in the Tuna Harbor lot.
But after soaking up a little nautical education at the Midway, won’t folks want to pop next door for crab cakes and ahi? "People don’t go to a carrier of a mind to go to dinner afterward," says Wilson. "We’d love to have the families and children that might go to the museum, but let’s face it, kids don’t like seafood."
He adds, "Let me make this part very clear—we’re not opposed to the carrier. We’re opposed to putting it at the Navy Pier. I told Alan [Uke] we’d make a sizable contribution if it is moved somewhere else." (Wilson is, indeed, a man who makes sizable contributions. In mid-March he donated $1 million to Escondido High School —his alma mater—toward renovation of its football stadium.)
Ray Ashley is another who supports the concept but is concerned about the location. Ashley, executive director of the Maritime Museum Association of San Diego and a member of Uke’s board, says he must assume a peculiar posture.
"Officially, our position is to have no position," says Ashley. "It’s hard to say how our attendance would be affected by another museum. Many of our visitors just happen by. We might lose some of them in a competition type of thing. I can’t really say what the impact will be."
The Maritime Museum is also on the Embarcadero. Its feature attraction is the Star of India, a three-masted ship built in 1863. The Star is the oldest actively operational vessel of its kind in the United States. It shares billing at the museum with the circa-1898 steam ferry Berkeley and steam yacht Medea, built in 1904. Last year, more than 100,000 visitors toured the Maritime Museum, says Ashley.
Both Reinders and Uke say joint marketing between the Midway and the Maritime Museum will keep visitors walking the gangplanks at both attractions.
As for parking, Uke says the Navy plans to tear down the warehouse structure currently in place on the Navy Pier. That would create room for 300 to 400 new parking spaces. Even though that would help, Wilson isn’t persuaded. "Does the city of San Diego really want a parking lot created on top of its bay?" he asks.
What concerns some observers more than parking and aesthetics is the bottom line. Uke says the project would break even each year if it attracts 300,000. He estimates attendance for the first year will be 750,000, with slightly smaller numbers for subsequent years. But depending on the method of estimation used, the attendance figure ranges from a conservative 380,000 to an admittedly unrealistic 2.4 million.
The latter figure comes from a market survey; the former is derived from an average of attendance at existing carrier museums around the country. There are three: the U.S.S. Yorktown in Charleston, South Carolina; the U.S.S. Lexington in Corpus Christi, Texas; and the U.S.S. Intrepid in New York City.
A report by San Diego–based CIC Research, retained by the carrier museum corporation, notes that these other carrier museums have visitor market capture rates ranging from 2 percent (New York) to 10 percent (Corpus Christi). Working from a base of nearly 14 million annual overnight visitors here, the San Diego Aircraft Carrier Museum would need to have a 6 percent capture rate to attract the more than three-quarters of a million visitors Uke predicts.
An expert source who’s researched Navy ship museums around the country doesn’t think that capture rate is feasible and questions the break-even numbers for the San Diego carrier museum proposal. "All over the country, subs and destroyers perform best as museums," says the source, who requested anonymity. "There’s not a lot of difference in draw between subs and carriers, but carriers require much more maintenance."
The CIC report points out perceived shortcomings of the other three carrier museums (although it does not broach the subject of the failed U.S.S. Cabot carrier museum in New Orleans). Though it draws 520,000 annually, the Intrepid is in a poor location, appears dirty and cluttered and lacks proper maintenance, the report states. The Yorktown is clean and well maintained, but its displays are "too passive," and tours become "somewhat monotonous," according to the report.
Uke says San Diego can learn from the mistakes made at other carrier museums — and thus prosper. "What will make or break something like this is how good a job we do in running it. We already know what mistakes have been made."
To that end, Uke has approached the Cincinnati-based attraction-design outfit Rouse Wyatt, a company involved in business ventures all over the world—including the Legoland project in Carlsbad. "The market niche seems right for a carrier museum in San Diego," says Randy Smith, director of planning and design for Rouse Wyatt.
Though the museum’s budget continues to evolve—$10 million is a lowball estimate—Uke boldly predicts the museum will operate in the black. "Unless we badly mismanage it, the museum should make money—about $1 million every year."
About that much has been raised in private donations. More than 40 San Diego individuals and organizations have contributed $25,000 each to become "plank owners." The first plank owner was Bill Stanton. "The sooner the Midway is in place, the happier I will be," says Stanton, general manager of Holiday Inn on the Bay. He says the project is good for the bay, the Embarcadero and, despite some objections, is insurance for the future.
With so much compelling argument for and against the museum site, it’s a shame the Midway itself can’t voice an opinion. After half a century of naval service, it would be fitting to find out where and how the icon might like to spend its golden years.