Big debt looms for Patriots Point

MOUNT PLEASANT - Patriots Point banked on $20 million in federal funding when it accepted a more than $9 million loan from the state to save its sinking warship Laffey.

Now that money is off the table, and the clock ticks toward time for the attraction to repay the debt. The Laffey's repairs also could incur unanticipated costs. And Patriots Point doesn't know where it's going to put the ship when that work is finished.

The state treasurer's office, which made an impassioned plea for the loan funds over the summer, seemed undaunted by the new circumstances.

"The loan is due in December 2011, so they have this year and they have next year to secure funding in the federal budget," said Deputy State Treasurer Scott Malyerck. "If it ends up with nothing in the budget this year, they have next year. Everyone's still kind of confident we're on the right track."

U.S. Rep. Henry Brown, R-S.C., had requested the funding, which was cut from the federal budget a few months ago. Patriots Point executive director Dick Trammell said the attraction recently began working with a grant writer for U.S. Sen. Lindsey Graham, R-S.C., to seek another path to the cash.

"It's real that it's not there, and it's very disappointing," Trammell said.

He characterized the Laffey saga, which began nearly a year ago, as "an emotional roller coaster."

As for the additional repairs, Patriots Point officials have asked the local Detyens Shipyards to donate extra services as it completes the project. Trammell said at a board meeting this week that workers recently removed plating installed during the most recent repairs 15 years ago at Detyens and found the steel underneath resembled "Swiss cheese."

"It's like a pendulum swinging back and forth," Trammell said, explaining the project uncovers cost savings in some areas and unanticipated expenses in others. "Sometimes it's in our favor, and sometimes it's against us."

Detyens representatives could not be reached for comment. The shipyard should complete the job in mid-December, which will bring Patriots Point to its next quandary: where to put the Laffey, a famed World War II destroyer that withstood kamikaze attacks to earn the title "The Ship That Would Not Die."

A Coast Guard museum took custody of the ship's neighbor, Coast Guard cutter Ingham, the day after the Laffey moved to dry dock. That left two simultaneous holes at the military museum, two potential homes upon the destroyer's return.

But both spots prove vulnerable to storms and require moving piers to move a vessel in and out for work. Patriots Point officials proposed instead moving the Laffey alongside the museum's main attraction, the aircraft carrier Yorktown, but the agency lacks the funding needed to install the berthing infrastructure to moor it there.

Patriots Point board members considered four possibilities at a recent meeting: at Waterfront Park in North Charleston, though Mayor Keith Summey declined the offer; on private property at Shipyard Creek, where costs would exceed $300 per day; at the State Ports Authority's Veterans Terminal, though that means moving the Laffey whenever a commercial ship calls; and at Detyens for $1,000 per day on top of the repair work.

Upon hearing the $1,000-per-day figure, Mount Pleasant Acting Mayor Kruger Smith quipped, "Put it in my front yard for that."

State Senate President Pro Tem Glenn McConnell toured the Laffey on Wednesday at Detyens. The facility would not allow reporters on its premises.

Trammell said McConnell took particular interest in the project because of his work with the Confederate submarine Hunley.

"He was pleased to see we were doing it right," Trammell said. "There were going to be no Band-Aids on it this time."

The new Laffey questions arise at the same time Patriots Point considers long-term repairs to the Yorktown. Estimates put services at the shipyard alone - excluding the costs of dredging the aircraft carrier out of 26 feet of mud and moving it - at more than $100 million. And for now, Patriots Point has a more immediate problem: determining when and by what means it will repay that $9.2 million state loan.