LA PORTE, Texas -- The Battleship Texas has been docked on the Houston Ship Channel for more than 70 years, offering anyone who hops onboard a glimpse of its glory.
“It was at every major American amphibious landing in World War 2. It was at North Africa, D-Day, Omaha Beach, Okinawa, and Iwo Jima,” said Tony Gregory, chairman of the board of trustees for the Battleship Texas Foundation.
But, faced with high maintenance costs and a low number of visitors, the last remaining World War I dreadnought will be moving to a new location where it can generate more traffic and, thus, more revenue.
“There are places we can take her that have a lot more tourists,” said Gregory.
The memorial is one of several naval ships turned tourist attractions that are struggling to stay financially afloat. In Hackensack, N.J., the USS Ling, which served as a naval museum, has been indefinitely closed after vandals caused extensive damage to the vessel. Officials at the SS American Victory in downtown Tampa, which served as a cargo ship in WWII, Korea, and Vietnam, said they get a good number of visitors but constantly need to find different funding streams to stay open.
“It’s a labor of love to keep these ships alive. We raise money through the daily tours, and fundraising, and memberships, and sponsorships. But, we really do need help from the community and local legislature, as well,” said Tom Procopio, operations manager of the American Victory.
Ships require recurring maintenance work to restore hulls or other parts, and trips to drydock can cost millions of dollars.
“It’s tough to preserve a ship. Saltwater and steel are horrible. You not only have salt water, you have weather. It’s a real challenge,” said David Bush, executive director of Preservation Houston.
But still -- some naval ships that have become museums have seen success. Other floating memorials have redeveloped programs and marketing strategies to attract more visitors and increase revenue.
In New York City, the USS Intrepid saw a bump in tourists after undergoing several renovations from 2006-2008 and acquiring the space shuttle Enterprise in 2011. The ship is now is one of the city’s biggest attractions. The USS Midway is also one of the top tourist attractions in San Diego, Calif. As the most-visited naval ship museum in the world, it sees about 1.4 million visitors a year.
In Texas, the state and local officials are doing everything they can to keep the Battleship Texas open to the public.
The ship, located by the San Jacinto Battleground, has long struggled with visibility. A stretch of oil refineries lines the road leading to the site. Gregory said the ship hopes for about 200,000 visitors a year but gets about 80,000 and generates $1.2 million in revenue. It’s not enough to keep up with the costs of upkeep. The Texas Legislature approved $35 million mainly to repair the ship’s leaking hull, which will begin in December. It will be relocated somewhere along the upper Texas coastline after the repairs are finished in 2021.
“It’s time to be able to stop asking the state for so much money and to try to support herself,” Gregory said.
The non-profit organizations running these ships said the work it takes to preserve them is worth it.
“These ships have a soul, and they get under your skin a little bit. We’re proud to maintain [the American Victory] today, and keep her here for the public. It’s a time when the country came together, and we can’t lose that message,” said Procopio.
“It has a certain appeal and nostalgia. Truly, these men that served on the ship were the greatest generation. And I think that our future generations need to know what happened,” said Gregory.