Why the Battleship Texas may soon be leaving Harris County for good
The century-old dreadnought, currently located near Houston, is in danger of rusting away. The state has ponied up $35 million to save it, but with the condition that it attract enough visitors to pay for its own maintenance.
If you’re thinking of visiting the Battleship Texas at its current home in La Porte, you’d better do so soon. The ship is currently open to the public on restricted hours, Friday to Sunday only. But come the end of the year, it will be floated to a shipyard out of state for extensive repairs, and the odds are it won’t be coming back to Harris County — despite the efforts of local officials, such as County Commissioner Adrian Garcia.
Last month, Garcia sponsored a resolution in Harris County Commissioners Court calling to defeat any effort to permanently change the ship’s home from the San Jacinto Battleground State Park, where the ship has sat for more than 70 years.
“There is no more appropriate location for this historic artifact to rest than where the state of Texas began,” Garcia said, referring to the site of the battle where Texas won independence from Mexico.
The concern is that the Battleship Texas isn’t drawing nearly enough visitors to pay the $2 million a year to maintain the century-old battleship, let alone to pay for the extensive repairs the ship needs. It's the only battleship in existence that fought in both World War I and World War II, according to the Battleship Texas Foundation.
“The ship draws about 80,000 paid visitors annually to its current location,” said Bruce Bramlett, executive director of the foundation. “It loses money operationally. Then if you have a leak, there’s another loss of money.”
The state has appropriated $85 million over the last dozen years to keep the battleship afloat, and lawmakers want that to end. Dry-docking the battleship, to get it permanently out of the corrosive salt water, would cost $100 million, a nonstarter. Sending it to the scrapyard would cost $30 million.
State Sen. Robert Nichols is the author of a bill, passed in May, designed to save the ship. “We met with the governor’s staff, the lieutenant governor’s staff, the House Appropriations staff, speaker’s staff, and on and on and on, and started building a consensus that $35 million, if we could really do this, is a much better investment than spending $30 million to scrap it and having nothing,” Nichols said.
Under the terms of the law, the foundation is taking over the ship’s operation from the state on a 99-year lease. For that $35 million, it’s responsible for floating the ship to a shipyard, replacing its rusted-out hull, among other badly needed repairs, and transporting it to a new home.
One of the conditions, Bramlett says: “You need to get it out of San Jacinto State Park, because the economics just doesn’t work there.”
Garcia says that’s a legitimate concern. But he argues Harris County can deal with it.
“Let’s do what we should have done all along, and I think that’s to build a[n] economic development plan around it so that we can create some sustainability for the repairs that it needs and then use it as a marketing instrument to bring people out into east Harris County and create the tourism that it deserves,” Garcia said.
The trouble is, it would take several times as many visitors as the Battleship Texas draws at La Porte in order to make it self-sustaining.
“We’re looking at places where we easily can draw 300[,000]-350,000 people a year vs. the 80[,000],” said Bramlett.
Sites that have expressed interest include Galveston, Corpus Christi and even Baytown. Bramlett won’t say which, if any, has the edge, for fear of discouraging competition.
“We need people to understand if you want a national historic site, which does not happen [often], suddenly moved into your backyard, you’re going to have to put some skin in the game. You’re going to have to help fund this,” Bramlett said. He said he’s highly skeptical Harris County is willing to spend the money.
“Bless the commissioners’ heart,” Bramlett said. “I mean, they’re good folks. I’ve been doing this for eight years. We’ve asked repeatedly for help from the commissioners. We’ve never gotten any help.”
Bramlett estimates that once the Texas leaves for the shipyard, it’ll be about a year before it moves to its permanent home, wherever that may be.
Editor's note: Listen to the audio version of this story at Houston Public Media.
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