The vessel/hotel Queen Mary and its conjoined Russian submarine, sit abandoned and rusting in Long Beach. They are an example of civic pride gone awry and failed governmental oversight.
The Queen Mary is a story of unfulfilled promises, multiple bankruptcies, city auditor reports, unaccounted for public funds, multiple operators and a vessel/hotel that has bounced between the City of Long Beach and the Port of Long Beach, back to the city and now a proposal to give it back to the port.
The Queen Mary is indeed iconic. It is also a failure and an example of poor public policy decision making. And now the City of Long Beach wants to push its mismanagement and its ongoing failure to become the responsibility, once again, of the Port of Long Beach.
When the Port of Long Beach celebrated its 100th anniversary, it commissioned a history of the port. Published in 2015, the book (Port Town by George and Carmela Cunningham) detailed not only the history of the Port of Long Beach, but also included the controversy surrounding the Queen Mary.
Below are some excerpts from that book that look back 50 years ago – revealing an instructive and stunning consistency with the current situation of cost overruns, delays, controversy and failure.
While the port discusses the possible transfer of the Queen Mary from the city, the port’s own history would indicate a need for due diligence, caution and an honest assessment as to why the port should accept a ship it realized 50 years ago would never be profitable, especially when the costs to restore it have risen from $57 million to a minimum of $354 million.
“The problematic process of restoring the Queen Mary had become a political time bomb … Long Beach bought an old bucket, a rust bucket,” Los Angeles County Supervisor Kenneth Hahn declared in 1969. “It’s a monument to stupidity.”
“The Queen Mary had fallen sadly short of what Long Beach had envisioned when she first arrived in the harbor in 1967. Despite all of the optimism and hoopla about the new role for the aging ship, she turned out to be more of a money pit than an asset. The ship had been expensive to retrofit and expensive to maintain. The millions of dollars spent to present her in her best light did not translate to the millions of visitors that had been expected to flock to her decks. In 1978, the city had turned the money-losing historic liner over to the port.”
“It was time for harbor commissioners to make a hard decision. Since the port had taken over the Queen Mary, it had been losing money at a slower rate than previously, but it remained a long way from being profitable. Was it time for Long Beach to cut its losses on the ship and stop hemorrhaging cash? The port had three options: keep the ship with all the long-term losses that option could include, find a buyer for it, or sell it for scrap. An attempt to attract interest from buyers had not been successful.”
“And then there was the Queen Mary – perhaps the biggest buildup with the biggest letdown of all, a floating money pit that had been turned over to the port in order to cover its losses.”
The issues today surrounding the Queen Mary as documented in Port Town remain the same as they did 50 years ago – except the financial liability and risk to the Port of Long Beach is now in the hundreds of millions of dollars at a minimum.
At a port commission meeting held earlier this year, the POLB’s chief financial officer stated that the port would need to spend $354 million, possibly more, to make the Queen Mary safe for visitors.
That sum of money did not include what would be needed to improve the vessel and the surrounding land in order to make it a viable attraction – a number that is an additional hundreds of millions of dollars.
According to the port, spending $354 million would generate $38 million in revenue. Not a great return on investment. More alarming was the financial officer’s comment that if the port incurs such costs, “that would be it;” the port would not be able to embark on any other capital projects – and would have to defer parts of their highly touted Pier B (on-dock rail facility) project.
Transferring the Queen Mary to the Port of Long Beach would burden the Port with a cost that will impact its future success and environmental goals and would also risk the economic future of the city, as the port is the economic driver of the city as well as the region.
What is needed is a comprehensive and independent review of the Queen Mary to estimate the total amount for the cost to repair, restore and make the vessel and adjacent property into an attraction or hotel that brings visitors in sufficient numbers to pay for its ongoing operation and maintenance.
If that estimate is an amount that is not reasonable or achievable, then those parts of the vessel that can be salvaged should be saved and the rest disposed of.
The Queen Mary has been operated and controlled by the City of Long Beach for over 50 years and has been directly operated by the city (twice), the Port of Long Beach, for-profit companies and non-profit organizations.
The one thing that has been consistent through the years has been failure, mismanagement, cost overruns, unaccounted for public funds, repairs that cannot be documented, bankruptcies and the promise of success which has never materialized.
Simply transferring this failed project from one city department to another is not the solution.
John McLaurin is president of the Pacific Merchant Shipping Association, an independent, not-for-profit shipping association that focuses on issues affecting international trade.