Posted on Sun, Oct. 27, 2002 story:PUB_DESC
Hunley price tag rising for S.C. taxpayers



Staff Writer
 

Taxpayers have spent some $8 million to raise and preserve the Hunley, the Confederate submarine recovered off Charleston in 2000.

Now, the sub’s supporters seek to build a $40 million Hunley museum. Initial proposals from three S.C. cities to build that museum include up to $8 million from S.C. taxpayers and $10 million from the federal government.

Legislators could get that request as early as next year, as the state enters its third year of massive budget cuts that have put thousands of state employees out of work and forced universities, schools, law enforcement and health agencies to slash services.

State Sen. Glenn McConnell, R-Charleston, says a Hunley museum deserves funding because it would bring money into the state.

“I think the Hunley will probably be the greatest tourist attraction in the state when it’s built out,” said McConnell, head of the Senate and the driving force behind the Hunley project.

But other legislators question whether the cash-strapped state can afford to give more to the Hunley.

State Sen. Darrell Jackson, D-Richland, wondered whether the state can afford a Hunley museum when state employees are being let go and the General Assembly won’t pass a cigarette or gas tax to pay for health and road needs. “I look forward to debating this,” he said.

State Sen. Thomas Moore, D-Aiken, said the Hunley project shouldn’t get automatic funding.

“You can’t look at one project in a vacuum,” Moore said. “Every project should have a full review.”

Up to now, state and federal spending on the Hunley has largely escaped public scrutiny. Millions of taxpayer dollars have flowed into a private foundation, the Friends of the Hunley, that contends it is immune from public scrutiny under the S.C. Freedom of Information Act.

State agencies quietly are subsidizing the Hunley:

The Department of Public Safety is providing elite police officers to guard the Hunley seven days a week at a cost of $110,000 a year;

Another state agency gives the Hunley project a building rent free at the former Charleston Naval Base. The free rent is valued at $300,000 a year. Inside the building, scientists are preserving the Hunley;

The state is also committed to spending $3.5 million to purchase a Civil War artifact collection of 10,000 paintings, maps, books and other objects. These would go into a future Hunley museum;

Three cities also are vying to build a proposed $40 million Hunley museum. Each of the cities has put forth proposals that mix taxpayer and private money to pay for the facility. The state’s projected share is up to $8 million; federal money could total another $10 million.

 

Up to now, the Hunley project has been largely exempt from state ethics laws, procurement regulations, review by the state auditor and annual accountability statements required of most state agencies.

McConnell said the Hunley project — originally faced with the challenges of raising the sub and preserving it — has evolved quickly.

He said he might be open to putting the Hunley under a more traditional state agency-type mechanism that allows more public scrutiny.

The Hunley project is overseen by a nine-member state commission headed by McConnell. In 1997, the commission created a private foundation, the Friends of the Hunley. Its board is picked by McConnell.

Over the years, the commission has funneled some $8 million in state and federal money to the foundation, which has spent the money to raise and preserve the Hunley.

The arrangement has allowed the Friends of the Hunley to get around state procurement regulations.

Last year, for instance, the Friends of the Hunley awarded a politically connected public relations firm — Richard Quinn and Associates — a $276,000-a-year marketing and fund-raising contract without putting it out for bid.

Richard Quinn, who heads that firm, managed McConnell’s political campaign. McConnell said he preferred Quinn for the contract because Quinn does good work and his “heart” is “in the right place” when it comes to the Hunley.

Said McConnell, “We have nothing to hide.  Everything I know about this project is clean as a whistle, and all of the money has gone into preserving this vessel.”

‘Something I was called to Go do’

McConnell is the Hunley’s best friend.

“Without Glenn, the Hunley would still be lying 32 feet down in the Atlantic covered by mud and sand,” said state Sen. John Courson, R-Richland.

As Senate president pro tem, McConnell has substantial power over bills in general, including getting money for the Hunley

In 1995, McConnell heard the long-lost Hunley had been located off Charleston. It had last been seen Feb. 17, 1864, when it became the first sub ever to sink an enemy ship — the USS Housatonic, a Union ship blockading Charleston in the Civil War.

“It was like something I was called to go do,” McConnell said, recalling the moment in 1995 when he heard the Hunley had been found off Sullivan’s Island. At that moment, McConnell made up his mind to “bring the Hunley home.”

McConnell became the leading force in securing custody of the sub for South Carolina. (Legally, it belongs to the federal government.)

He also was key in getting $8 million in state and federal money to raise the sub in 2000 and begin the preservation process, which might last another five years.

To McConnell, the Hunley is personal. He has traveled the state, giving speeches about the scientific and military wonders of the Hunley and winning standing ovations, says his friend, state Sen. Arthur Ravenel, R-Charleston.

The Hunley “is the love of Glenn’s life,” Courson said.

In his speeches, McConnell talks about the Hunley mission in dramatic terms, saying the Hunley’s eight-man crew — recovered inside the vessel — finally is home.

McConnell will flash on a screen a picture of the Hunley rising and say: “It is now 8:35 a.m., Aug. 8, 2000. The H.L Hunley with the gracious aid of the people of the United States and South Carolina, lifts off the bottom of the Atlantic Ocean to begin the final journey home. In three-and-a-half minutes, through 32 feet of water, she returns to the light she departed — into a world waiting to see her.”

‘This state has a responsibility’

The Hunley fits into McConnell’s fascination with the Confederacy, the Civil War and the Confederate flag, which he has vowed to keep flying in front of the State House.

McConnell has largely given up his law practice to open a Civil War-era memorabilia shop. He dons Confederate — and Union — uniforms to stage mock Civil War battles. His cell phone plays “Dixie.”

“This state has a responsibility to those it sent off to battle,” McConnell said, adding South Carolina must stay loyal to its Confederate soldiers.

McConnell is equally uncompromising in talking about the Hunley. “She’s the crown jewel of 19th century maritime history.”

That might be an exaggeration, said Tim Runyan, director of East Carolina University’s underwater archaeology and maritime history program, one of only two such programs in the nation.

Runyan agreed the Hunley is a remarkable ship that changed the nature of warfare by being the first submarine to sink a ship.

“The line from the Hunley to today’s most deadly weapons — the nuclear sub — is a pretty straight line,” Runyan said.

But, he said, numerous other 19th century maritime inventions were equally or more momentous than the Hunley: the screw propeller, the steam engine, ships made of iron and rotating gun turrets, to name a few.

“These other things were amazing, too,” Runyan said.

300,000 visitors a year?

Just how many visitors would a Hunley museum attract?

The proposed museum would house the 40-foot Hunley and the $3.5 million Peery collection — a collection of Civil War maritime-theme paintings, drawings, books, maps and artifacts that the Legislature, at McConnell’s urging, has committed the state to buy.

McConnell also is seeking a crucial third element for the museum — which he won’t disclose.

“If that is combined with the H.L. Hunley, we will have the capability to describe and portray on the seas with the same completeness that Gettysburg can show the struggle on land,” he said.

Existing Confederate museums across the South don’t attract hordes of visitors.

The largest, the Museum of the Confederacy in Richmond, attracts about 65,000 visitors a year. The next largest, the Confederate Memorial Hall in New Orleans, gets about 20,000.

McConnell says the Hunley museum will be different — a high-tech place where visitors can go on “virtual reality” trips of the last Hunley voyage and sink a Union ship. They will see lifelike holograms — statues of light — of Hunley sailors, who will address the visitors. They will see a gold coin, bent by a bullet at Shiloh, that tells a Confederate soldier’s love story.

Spending up to $40 million on a Hunley museum is in line with a similar project in Virginia.

In Newport News, Va., officials of The Mariners’ Museum are putting together a $30 million exhibit about the USS Monitor, a Civil War ironclad that embodied major scientific advances, including a rotating gun turret.

In recent years, parts of the Monitor have been retrieved from the 250-foot deep sea floor off North Carolina for about $15 million.

To house the Monitor, the museum plans to raise up to $25 million from federal, state and local governments, and up to $10 million from private contributors.

Most of that money will go for a new wing for the Mariners’ Museum, which has one of the nation’s best collections of naval historical exhibits.

Museum official Justin Lyons said the Mariners’ Museum now has about 60,000 visitors a year. When the Monitor exhibit opens, in 2007, the museum might draw up to 200,000 visitors a year, he said.

McConnell hopes the Hunley museum will draw at least 300,000 visitors a year.

Court Might decide if public has the right to know.

In South Carolina, McConnell is the first among 46 state senators. As Senate president pro tem and chairman of the Judiciary Committee, his influence rivals that of Gov. Jim Hodges and House Speaker David Wilkins.

McConnell gets his power from his mastery of parliamentary rules. But he also forges coalitions with potential critics that make it hard for them to criticize anything he does.

He’s pro-Confederate and highly conservative. But he has some black support because he backed an African-American history monument on the State House grounds. And he has worked for strong environmental laws, winning support from environmentalists.

McConnell also uses threats — and gets results.  (Continued on next page)

Call John Monk at 803-771-8344 or jmonk@thestate.com

 


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