As the tempest around the waterfront’s future continues to swirl, a nonprofit dedicated to preserving a storied naval vessel is waiting and hoping to call Alexandria a safe harbor.
Now berthed in Chesapeake, it is known to some as the USS Zuni, the last remaining ship to have seen action during bitter fighting at Iwo Jima. It’s known to others as the Cutter Tamaroa, a Coast Guard ship celebrated for its desperate attempt to save the Andrea Gail’s crew during “The Perfect Storm.”
Saved from an ignominious end by an anonymous benefactor after the Coast Guard decommissioned the 205-foot salvage tug-turned-cutter in 1994, the ship was adopted by the Zuni Maritime Foundation, a Richmond-based nonprofit dedicated to giving it a new mission as a floating museum.
In a perfect world, the Zuni would call Alexandria homeport, said foundation spokesman Tom Robinson. It would benefit both sides of a waterfront debate in which cultural centers are on everyone’s agenda — and Robinson said the Zuni would be self-funded.
But the Zuni museum has other suitors.
“We’ve also been asked to go to Portsmouth [but] the good thing about Alexandria, and the reason I’m hoping this will come through, is because we will be so close to the Marine museum and Quantico and the Navy memorial museum as well as the national Capitol,” he said.
Until the city council offers an invitation, the Zuni will remain in Chesapeake. Before council can take up the offer, it will need to resolve the waterfront debate, said Lance Mallamo, director of the Office of Historic Alexandria, who has been working with the foundation.
It’s too soon to start making arrangements, he said.
“We have made some provisions in the waterfront plan for historic vessels and [the Zuni] would be one we would certainly consider,” Mallamo said. “It’s a little premature to make any commitment to them. I know they’re anxious.”
Once the city irons out a vision for the waterfront, then staff can begin sorting through the many details of bringing a ship into the city’s riverside harbor. That includes finding a place to dock it and making arrangements for the occasional seagoing voyage, he said.
While it’s not the kind of historic vessel planners had in mind when they drew up the waterfront plan, Mallamo acknowledges the Zuni, built in 1943, ties nicely into the city’s wartime history.
“I do think it’s something we would be very interested in seeing happen, but I’m not able to say whether Alexandria is the right place or not,” he said. “I know there are many cities that are envious of us to be in this position. It does seem to have some interest and some great people are behind this project, but we’re just not ready to deal with this.”
Much of the controversy around the city’s proposed waterfront plan surrounds the ratio of museums and cultural centers to commercial development. A competing blueprint, released by Citizens for an Alternative Alexandria Waterfront Plan, calls for more emphasis on museums, especially at three sites targeted for redevelopment as boutique hotels.
Boyd Walker, an outspoken critic of the city’s plan and founding member of CAAWP, admitted not knowing about the nonprofit’s interest in using Alexandria as a port for a floating museum. He’s open to the concept, though not at the expense of CAAWP’s proposed land-based institutions.
“My view, without knowing much more about it, is that I don’t think it would be a replacement for a museum site on land and — preferably to me — at Robinson Terminal North,” Walker said. “But in combination, it would be great.”
The clock is ticking for Robinson and the Zuni Maritime Foundation. Organizers are eager to get started on fundraising in anticipation of restoring the Zuni’s original guns and finishing up repair work. They can wait until late December, but after that, they’ll have to seriously consider another location.
Which is not to put any pressure on Alexandria, Robinson said. They want to bring the Zuni to Alexandria but only if residents are on board with the idea.
“We want Alexandria … to say, ‘this is our ship, this is our official ship for the city,’” Robinson said. “We will work 100 percent with any neighborhood group to make sure we don’t do anything to cause any heartburn.”