$9.2M Just in Time for Destroyer Laffey

By Allyson Bird
The Post and Courier
Tuesday, June 30, 2009

After months of uncertainty, Patriots Point on Monday received the $9.2 million state loan it needs to repair its most weakened warship.

The destroyer Laffey, dubbed "The Ship that Would Not Die" for fending off kamikaze attacks in World War II, heads to dry dock Aug. 19, thanks to Monday's vote by the state Budget and Control Board. The funding comes just in time to get the ship sea-ready by the summer's highest tide.

Grace Beahm/The Post and Courier

Patriots Point got $9.2 million loan to make critical repairs on the destroyer Laffey, examined
here by maintenance supervisor Paul Jeffers.  The loan must be repaid within a year and a half.

It also follows months of discussion as to whether Patriots Point, unable to pay for repairs, should turn the ship into an artificial reef. Officials at the attraction traveled to Washington and Columbia seeking support.

They later learned that sinking the ship would cost about the same as saving it.

A few weeks ago State Treasurer Converse Chellis toured the Laffey and made phone calls from the destroyer's deck asking other Budget and Control Board members to approve the loan.

Chellis released a statement after Monday's vote, calling it "a victory for the men and women who were a part of the Greatest Generation. It was a vote to help preserve an important piece of our country's history, but it was also a very fiscally smart vote for our state."

But of the five board members, two did not share his enthusiasm.

State Comptroller General Richard Eckstrom said after the vote that Patriots Point did not seem to consider all options, since he never received any documentation to tell him otherwise.

A retired Navy captain whose father served on ships similar to the Laffey, Eckstrom said he supported preserving military heritage, but not at unnecessary cost to the state.

"My concern is trying to make the emotional argument correspond with economic reality," Eckstrom said. "I'm not sure we hit that sweet spot today."

Gov. Mark Sanford also did not vote on the loan. His press secretary, Joel Sawyer, said Sanford also supported exploring alternatives further before committing to the funding.

The loan comes with one caveat: Patriots Point must repay it within a year and a half. Officials at the attraction hope that $20 million in federal funding requested by U.S. Rep. Henry Brown, R-S.C., will come through next year. They promised to use that money toward the debt.

Patriots Point interim executive director Dick Trammell, who traveled to the Columbia board meeting, said the attraction already began removing potential pollutants from inside the ship in preparation for transport.

Next, a crew will secure hardware inside to keep it from falling straight through the Laffey's fragile hull.

Last winter, the ship developed more than 100 holes. Divers will check that canvas of patches from outside the ship before tugboats pull the destroyer away from Patriots Point.

The Laffey will remain at a Detyens Shipyards facility for at least four months, Trammell said.

Before referring the project to the Budget and Control Board, the Joint Bond Review Committee, a group of lawmakers that reviews state financial obligations, asked Patriots Point officials to compose a maintenance plan to prevent another emergency within the fleet. Trammell said Monday that the attraction is developing a strategy for each ship.

A Florida Coast Guard group plans to take custody of the cutter Ingham, while the submarine Clamagore will head to a shore exhibit.

Patriots Point's star attraction, the aircraft carrier Yorktown, needs considerable repairs in the coming years.

Reach Allyson Bird at 937-5594.

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