YOU ARE HERE: LAT HomeCollections

Midway's New Tour of Duty: San Diego Tourist Attraction?


SAN DIEGO — Bring another Navy ship to San Diego and expect the tourists to arrive in droves?

Why not just toss another lump of coal at Newcastle?

Yes, but this would not be just another gray-hulled ship with big numbers on the side. It would be the fabled carrier Midway, with battle stripes from World War II to Operation Desert Storm, as long as three football fields, once the proud flagship of the Pacific Fleet.

And it would not be just a big ship sitting dockside. It would be a museum of military aircraft, with science exhibits on oceanography and the physics of the sea for the kids, and theaters with military-tinged movies, and a section on women in the military, and more.

That is the quixotic vision of businessman Alan Uke, who for the past year has been conducting a one-man drive to bring the Midway out of mothballs.

"I want this to be upbeat and fun, halfway between the Aerospace Museum and Sea World," said Uke, founder and chairman of Underwater Kinetics, a scuba-diving equipment manufacturing firm in suburban San Marcos.

The Midway mission started when Uke, 40, ran for the Republican nomination for Congress from San Diego last year.

One of his promises was to pull the city out of its economic doldrums by importing a blockbuster tourist attraction. He even issued a report on the subject.

Uke lost the primary election, but nevertheless set off to keep his campaign promise. He began trying to persuade the Navy to give San Diego one of its excess aircraft carriers. The best bet was the Midway, which had been recently sent into retirement at age 47.

So far, Uke has gotten support from a list of political and civic leaders. Last week, the state Assembly joined the state Senate in endorsing a resolution by Sen. Robert Presley (D-Riverside) asking the Navy to release the Midway for use as a "regional museum, educational and entertainment complex."

Uke has made the rounds of federal agencies, visited the Midway at the Navy's inactive-ship facility in Bremerton, Wash., and assembled a committee of blue-ribbon San Diegans.

This month, he and his committee will go public with a splashy waterfront news conference, announcing a signature-gathering drive and an effort to raise $100,000 for engineering and financial studies.

To stir local interest, Uke hopes to raise the specter of San Diego losing its reputation as a shiny city with tourist attractions and a high-tone quality of life. He believes the city needs to emulate San Francisco as a "luxury city" or risk becoming "more like Los Angeles."

There are precedents for turning an out-of-service carrier into a privately run museum. The Yorktown in Charleston, S.C., the Intrepid in New York and the Lexington in Corpus Christi, Tex., have made the conversion successfully.

Of course, there is also the economic horror story of the Queen Mary and Long Beach, where what ship boosters thought would be a profitable tourist attraction turned out to be far less lucrative.

Uke is ready with a passel of reasons why San Diego can escape the Queen Mary experience: Although the Queen Mary had no historical tie to Long Beach, the Navy consciousness of San Diego makes it a natural for the Midway. Although Long Beach is not in the Southland "tourist corridor," San Diego is tourist central.

The Navy has been noncommittal. The final decision on letting loose a decommissioned ship is up to the chief of naval operations.

Uke has talked with Rear Adm. F.K. Holian, commander of the San Diego Naval Base, and come away encouraged. But a Navy spokesman, Chief Petty Officer Martin Wicklund, said the official position is no position: "This project is a private venture without official Navy sanction or support."

Tourist and business officials are enthusiastic.

"It's an exciting project," said Reint Reinders, president of the Convention and Visitors Bureau. "There are several details we have to work out, though."

One detail is where to find $10 million that Uke says will be necessary to retrofit the fighting ship as a tourist attraction.

That is where the petition-passing campaign comes in. Uke hopes that a maritime-loving public will provide enough signatures to persuade the San Diego City Council to float $10 million worth of bonds, with the city acting as guarantor in case the Midway flops.

His argument is that the Midway project could be in the black with 400,000 visitors a year. By comparison, San Diego's Old Town gets 6.5 million, the San Diego Zoo 3 million, the Wild Animal Park 1.5 million, and the Cabrillo National Monument 1.3 million.

"When you get 1.3 million visitors out to the Cabrillo National Monument, that tells me they've run out of things to do," Uke said. "San Diego is a three-day town for visitors. We need to make it a weeklong town."

"It's like starting any business. You can either lose your butt or make a lot of money, depending on how you do it," said Uke, who started his $10-million company from scratch after quitting college.

"After this thing happens, I'll be considered either a devil or a saint."

Los Angeles Times Articles