Richmond council rejects idea of charging rent to WWII vessel
By Robert Rogers Contra Costa Times
Posted: 07/10/2012 11:55:38 PM PDT
Updated: 07/10/2012 11:55:38 PM PDT
RICHMOND -- The SS Red Oak Victory has not seen active duty for decades, but its supporters mobilized to helped it dodge a rent-seeking city councilman Tuesday night.
The Richmond Museum Association, the nonprofit group that owns the ship, has berthed the Red Oak at the Port of Richmond rent-free since 1999.
Councilman Corky Booze, citing the city's $2.9 million budget deficit, for weeks had called for the city to consider charging the ship $10,000 per month and recoup more than $1 million in retroactive rent for the last decade.
"I don't mind relocation" to another part of the city's shoreline, Booze said. "But you can't sit on the port for free anymore. Maybe I do have to be the bad guy, but I have to do the people's business."
The council disagreed, rejecting Booze's motion by a 5-2 vote.
"There is a much greater value that this ship offers to us as a city (than rent)" said Mayor Gayle McLaughlin.
The World War II cargo ship was built in Richmond in 1944 and is stationed at the city's port as a floating museum.
The council later passed a competing motion made by Councilman Tom Butt to provide open-ended free berthing to the ship in exchange for the museum's continued maintenance and public access.
The ship is among the popular attractions of the city's Rosie the Riveter/World War II Home Front National Historical Park, which preserves numerous sites along the shorefront and in the inner city. The Museum Association is composed of volunteers who have helped restore the ship, and would not be able to raise the money for rent, said Lois Boyle, the association's president.
Museum leaders say the Red Oak draws tourist dollars and economic and social benefits to the city.
But skeptics questioned those assertions, as well as whether the berthing spot might be able to draw business from other vessels.
"Who can say conclusively that the benefits (of free berthing) are worth the costs?" asked resident Don Gosney.
The public debate struck chords that reverberated along age and class lines. Older residents in the audience stressed the importance of maintaining the city's cultural heritage as a productive WWII shipyard. Many younger, working-class residents questioned the wisdom of providing the ship free rent when city services, especially public safety, face severe budget strain.
More than 20 speakers weighed in, roughly balanced on both sides of the debate. Some speakers drew analogies between the ship receiving free rent and their own requirements to pay rents in their homes and apartments and pay for use of city facilities like community centers. Residents also questioned subsidizing the ship rather than funding more anti-violence programs in the city.
"You've got to pay your way in Richmond, California," said Antwon Cloird, a resident and anti-violence outreach worker. "I asked for money and Tom Butt said you didn't have it, and he isn't lying, we don't have it."
Butt said Booze had foisted a false debate on the public by raising the issue of changing the status quo on the Red Oak Victory's free berthing at the port.
"This has been couched as a wedge issue, as though (charging rent) would stop the killing or provide jobs, and that's a specious argument."
Booze also suggested moving the ship to a location adjacent to a new National Park Visitors Center opened earlier this year near the Craneway Pavilion, but Port Director Jim Matzorkis said infrastructure is not in place to house the ship at that location. The ship is currently housed at Berth 6A, at the point of a peninsula, south of the Port of Richmond's industrial operations.
"Richmond is a city of more than 100,000 people, and I would be willing to bet 90 percent of them wouldn't be able to tell you where the ship is," Booze said.