Hunley price tag rising for S.C. taxpayers
Taxpayers have spent some $8 million to raise
and preserve the Hunley, the Confederate submarine recovered off Charleston
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
“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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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