In 2009, the U.S. Navy gave two directives: either make plans to scrap the USS North Carolina or set out to restore the World War II-era warship.
So launched the multi-year Generations Campaign to fund work on the aging vessel that today has racked up over $23 million in public and private funds.
“It’s the most successful public-private partnership in the history of the Battleship North Carolina,” said Capt. Terry Bragg, executive director of the attraction. “We’ve had other fundraising campaigns, but not of this scale or of this success.”
Now celebrating its 60th year docked at the Cape Fear River spot, the Battleship North Carolina is nearing the conclusion of the second phase in the project to update and preserve the vessel as an anchor attraction for the area.
The Generations Campaign was conceived to support the greatest challenge that the battleship has experienced in its modern life as a state memorial: the deterioration of its hull and issues that have come with climate change, Bragg said.
The ship’s preservation was paramount to keeping the ship a historical monument moored in the Cape Fear River.
“According to the Navy, the battleship is supposed to have significant hull repairs every 20 years,” Bragg said. “However, the Battleship North Carolina was never dry docked or has had significant hull repairs since 1953.”
In response to the Navy, battleship officials planned and executed several projects through the campaign. Those included an $8.5 million cofferdam, $3.6 million Memorial Walkway and $2.5 million in hull repairs. The campaign also helped the battleship to install additional educational features for visitors at a cost of about $2 million.
The walkway and cofferdam were completed in 2018, with the final repairs to the hull to wrap up soon.
The cofferdam, a watertight structure built around the battleship, allowed water to be pumped out so that major work could take place on the hull in a dry workspace.
Battleship officials hired Wilmington-based Bowman Murray Hemingway Architects as the architect and Neal Andrew of Andrew Consulting Engineers as the battleship’s consulting engineer for the walkway and cofferdam projects. They are also the design and engineering team for the hull repairs, Bragg said.
“Doing hull repairs on the Battleship North Carolina is no simple task … There is no other project like the repairs of the battleship in the world,” Bragg said. “There was not a naval shipyard or an architect, so we have done this all with homegrown talent in Wilmington.”
With the repairs to the battleship hull coming to an end this year, officials are turning their sights on phase three of the Generations Campaign: a project to construct a living shoreline, install wetlands and improve drainage and the elevation of the battleship site. The projects, collectively, have been dubbed the Living with Water initiative.
“We had been focused on the repairs to the ship, but climate change accelerated around 2015 and is even more dramatic today with the number of flooding events in the whole coastal plain. So we added Living with Water as phase three of the Generations Campaign,” Bragg said.
The battleship has secured $2.3 million in state and federal grants specifically geared toward the Living with Water initiative.
“But we have essentially established an ultimate goal of $5 million for that Living with Water project for the battleship,” Bragg said.
The battleship hired Moffatt & Nichol, which is designing plans for the project with work expected to begin in 2022.
“We’re going to build a living shoreline, a new high-tech, environmentally sensitive way to protect the grounds of the battleship,” Bragg said. “And we are going to build a constructed wetlands. Right now, the water washes over the road, comes over the marsh and goes everywhere. So we are going to build a pathway for that water to transit our properties.”
The other element is the redesign of the grounds’ drainage systems and possibly elevating the parking lot, Bragg said.
There is also $1 million the battleship received in federal relief funds for Hurricane Florence repairs such as repainting needed on the battleship mast, which is outside of the campaign initiative, he said.
“We have a lot going on; we have construction going on, visitation is booming and we’re prosperous,” Bragg said.
Battleship officials launched the initial fundraising campaign in 2016, with a goal to reach $18 million for the project’s first two phases.
Through public and private support, the total has reached more than $23 million, and donations are still coming in, Bragg said.
Funds remaining in the campaign account and additional donations anticipated to come in will support closing out the hull project and extensive painting of the ship. Extra funds also will go toward the final price tag for the Living with Water initiative and future educational features.
A gift phase was launched in 2012 seeking the support of statewide leaders for the Generations Campaign’s start, while a public gift phase was rolled out later.
Large financial donors to the campaign include the State Employees Credit Union Foundation, BB&T (now Truist) and Duke Energy, on top of other banks and smaller donors over the years. The state of North Carolina also allocated $10 million in funding for the cofferdam and hull projects, Bragg said.
On top of the financial support, North Carolina-based Nucor Corp. donated all of the steel plating for repairing and preserving the battleship’s hull.
The Generations Campaign also received support from federal lawmakers, including U.S. Rep. David Rouzer (R-NC).
Bragg said Rouzer’s office and others were key in supporting the battleship in obtaining a $200,000 federal maritime heritage grant, which at the time was the largest such grant in the nation and helped support hull repairs.
The battleship’s preservation and other important pieces of war history have added to Wilmington’s appeal to visitors, Rouzer said in a statement.
It also aided in Wilmington being selected in 2020 by the National Parks Service as the first American World War II Heritage City “This designation, along with the USS North Carolina as its most prominent cornerstone, helps preserve Wilmington’s war effort contributions and will continue to bring visitors from across the state and nation to appreciate the history of our region for years to come,” Rouzer said.
This April more than 20,000 people visited the attraction, more than during any other April in the past 10 years, Bragg said.
Visitation to the battleship has grown over the years but slowed last year due to the COVID-19 pandemic.
“The Battleship North Carolina is recovering from COVID. It’s in a bit of a renaissance, and revenue is ramping up very quickly,” Bragg said. “We expect to have a very strong visitors season for the summer.”
According to the Wilmington and Beaches Convention and Visitors Bureau, the battleship consistently ranks as New Hanover County’s third-most visited “nonpark attraction” based on figures provided by area attractions. It’s also a top attraction for the state, said Kim Hufham, president and CEO of the New Hanover County Tourism Development Authority, doing business as the Wilmington and Beaches CVB.
The site draws visitors from across the state, nation and abroad, she said.
Maintaining the battleship for the future will continue to promote it for visitors for years to come, she said, through interpretive exhibits, photographs, mementos, oral histories, online resources and special events.
“The Battleship North Carolina’s active role in our community was among the criteria that led to Wilmington being recently selected as the nation’s first WWII Heritage City,” Hufham said.
“The battleship’s commitment to ongoing maintenance and repairs helps to improve the visitor experience and ensure that the Battleship North Carolina will be here to enjoy for decades to come. New exhibits, the walkway, special events and programming provide repeat visitors with new ways to experience the ship.”
Raising $23 million for the effort was no small feat, Bragg said.
“The hull repairs, the education, the walkway and the Living with Water will preserve the destiny of the Battleship North Carolina to continue decades into the future as the state’s memorial, as an attraction and a center for education,” he said.
“I predict in the decades to come, most of the historic ship fleet – of about 175 historic ships around the world – most of them will start to succumb to the challenges of corrosion and deterioration and an inability to raise the capital funds at this level,” Bragg said. “And that in 100 years, there will be a very small handful of historic ships representing the World War II history of the country that will still survive. One of them will be the Battleship North Carolina.”
Battleship North Carolina:
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