Panel tours sites wooing the Hunley

Museum decision could be made by end of month

Tuesday, April 2, 2002

Of The Post and Courier Staff


     On a daylong tour of prospective museum sites, members of the Hunley Commission on Monday offered their first hints of where they believe the Confederate submarine ultimately should be housed.
     The decision, they said, could come by month's end.
     That may not be a moment too soon, given new advances in conservation that could dramatically speed up the restoration of the world's first attack sub. Project director Bob Neyland says a technique called cold plasma reduction is being tested on one of the sub's rivets. It's a technique that eventually could shorten the conservation phase of scientists' work by years.
     The potential of an accelerated timetable may be a factor in the commission's insistence on picking a site quickly. But it may not be an easy decision.
     While visiting proposed locations in North Charleston, Mount Pleasant and downtown Charleston, Hunley Commission Chairman Glenn McConnell said each site had certain advantages, but that "they aren't all playing with the same cards."
     Patriot's Point's strong card, McConnell said, is that it's a state agency, making it easier for the Legislature to help out with funding - a necessity given that all three proposals call for some state money.
     Charleston's strength is the close ties of its site to the Hunley's history - and its 3.9 million tourists every year.
     North Charleston has scored points for having a single focus, a strong vision and some world-class experts behind its proposal.
     "They are all three fine sites, no doubt about it," McConnell said. "Each one has certain points. Ultimately, it's going to come down to the little detail. We have to look at viability and a built-in tourism market."
     McConnell said he has passed along copies of the three proposals to real estate experts to help the commission with its deliberations, which he said would be conducted in public and could happen in the next three to four weeks.
     After a day of oral presentations last month, the courting continued Monday as commission members rode in a helicopter over Patriot's Point, a boat along Noisette site in North Charleston and gazed over the harbor from the balcony of the South Carolina Aquarium for a peek at the view a downtown Hunley museum would command.
     The decision may come down to a single factor. Hunley commissioners fear having the sub overshadowed, which is a point in the favor of North Charleston - which wants to make the museum the centerpiece of its waterfront development. In Charleston and at Patriot's Point, the Hunley museum would be in direct competition with other tourist attractions.
     McConnell also said a lack of free parking hurt Charleston's proposal. Patriot's Point and North Charleston include much surface parking space in their proposals.
     "The single negative point for Patriot's Point is, 'Is it too much?'" McConnell said. "Would one ship take away from the other? But the same can be said about downtown. Another drawback to Mount Pleasant and Charleston is the distance to the lab (in North Charleston)."
     At the same time, the commission wants to make sure the museum is self-sustaining - something all the suitors kept in mind during the tours. David Burnette, executive director of Patriot's Point, said the Yorktown had its biggest day ever last Saturday with 2,550 paid admissions.
     In Charleston, Mayor Joseph P. Riley Jr. casually mentioned that the aquarium had sold 2,514 tickets that day - a Monday.
     The day started for commissioners with a half-hour boat ride in front of the former Navy base, as members of North Charleston's design team walked them through a series of posters showing massive redevelopment projects other cities have successfully executed - Baltimore's inner harbor, the Chattanooga riverfront.
     City leaders pointed out that the Noisette Project, North Charleston's 3,000-acre redevelopment of the base and surrounding neighborhoods, would mirror that success. The crowning jewel of the project would be a 40,000-square-foot Hunley Museum at Pier Alpha.
     John Knott, who developed Dewees Island and is spearheading the Noisette Project, pointed out to commissioners that North Charleston's proposal brings more cash to the table as well as the best team of designers and planners money can buy.
     "We have the top experts pulled together to give you a world class museum," Knott said. "We have the leading thinkers in the world. If that's what you are looking for, no one else is going to have it because they are all on this team. This museum deserves nothing less."
     North Charleston is offering $11 million toward a $40 million museum; Mount Pleasant $8 million toward a $28.5 facility; Charleston, about $5 million for a $29.5 million project.
     McConnell was impressed by the experts hired by North Charleston - especially Ralph Appelbaum, whose work on the Holocaust Museum in Washington, D.C., has drawn international accolades.
     "They've got the vision. The (Hunley) story has moved Appelbaum, it's clear," he said.
     Patriot's Point declared its site on the banks of the Cooper River a blank slate that the Hunley Commission could do with as they liked. Burnette said the Hunley museum is the flagship of the Point's new master plan.
     "We want you; we want that to be clear," Mount Pleasant Mayor Harry Hallman said.
     Riley, as is his manner, made less of a spectacle of his presentation, but insisted that downtown Charleston was the only real choice to ensure the sub's long-term financial success.
     "This is where the visitors are - this is your sustainability," Riley said. "People come to Charleston. They come to the Wildlife Exposition, the Festival of Homes, Spoleto, the Market. They shop on King Street; they come on bus tours."
     Riley made much of the historical significance of the city's proposed site next to the new Fort Sumter tour boat facility at the end of Calhoun Street. From that location, visitors can see the site of the Hunley's battle with the Housatonic. The museum would be built on land that, Riley said, is where the sub was first put into Charleston waters.
     "To see this place where the Hunley first sailed in 1863 and to have this piece of land still available is amazing," he said.
     A subcommittee of the Hunley Commission now will deliberate on the sites and make a recommendation to the full commission.



Used with permission of The Post and Courier and Charleston.Net



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