Abandon Ship?

Mayor White's lakefront plan would torpedo the Mather.

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Preserving history or blocking the view? The Mather debate continues, full steam ahead. - Walter  Novak
Preserving history or blocking the view? The Mather debate continues, full steam ahead.
When the owners of the Steamship William G. Mather Museum were planning their rededication ceremony this spring, they asked local officeholders to issue proclamations commemorating the historic ore freighter's 75th anniversary. The Harbor Heritage Society figured it was a small enough favor to ask, and the governor, local members of Congress, and the city council were all happy to comply.

But one honorary proclamation was noticeably missing at the May 23 ceremony -- the one requested from Mayor Michael White.

"We cannot engage him into dialogue with us," sighs Executive Director Holly Holcombe.

What could the mayor possibly have against "The Ship That Built Cleveland," the former flagship of a fleet that supplied the steel mills and helped make the city an industrial powerhouse?

It didn't build his Cleveland.

White's Cleveland is the "comeback city," home of the fashionable Cleveland Browns Stadium, the glitzy Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, and the widely heralded Gateway Center. Two weeks ago, the mayor revealed his next megaproject -- lakefront redevelopment. And there's no place in it for the towering ship.

"It's just so tall and high," explains Richard Fawell, design principal for VOA Architecture, the firm contracted by White to develop the plan. "If you were to build a wall there, people would think you were crazy. But essentially, that's what it is."

That's the kind of talk likely to turn Steamship Mather into Battleship Mather. Supporters of the museum have braved rough waters before. They have maneuvered the museum through attendance crises, financial shortfalls, and other torpedo attacks intended to dislodge it from its current mooring off the East Ninth Street Pier. Like the Mather itself -- which landed on a 1941 Life magazine cover, after plowing through the ice-clogged Great Lakes to help with the war effort -- they will be not be deterred by hardship.

"We've done campaigns before, and we're willing to do it again," Holcombe says. "Each time we do it, more people sign on."

For nearly a year, White and his top directors discreetly hammered out the lakefront plan with the Chicago-based VOA. The firm suggested that the prime piece of nautical real estate the Mather currently inhabits be converted into a marina for dinner cruise ships and fishing charters. The plan also calls for an aquarium, Ferris wheel, carousel, children's museum and theater, paddleboats, and restaurants at the North Coast Harbor. Along with the proposed convention center, the redeveloped lakefront would cost about $765 million, and the public would have to pay for it. The mayor expects the plan to go to the voters at some point, although exactly when has yet to be determined.

From the hour of its unveiling, the plan has drawn strong criticism from Cleveland City Council members and county commissioners, who berated the mayor for not including them in the planning process. Suspicions about the mayor's motives were fueled last week by revelations that he skirted public review of nearly $40,000 worth of design work contracted with VOA, by breaking it into four separate pieces. Both Council President Mike Polensek and downtown Councilman Joe Cimperman included the missing Mather in their list of the plan's shortcomings.

"I'm not going to say [the pier's] the best place for the Mather," Cimperman says. "But the people who represent the Mather deserve a place at the table. And that hasn't happened."

Kenneth Silliman, the mayor's executive assistant for development, insists that indignation about the 618-foot-long Mather, as well as any other part of the plan, is unwarranted.

"As the mayor indicated at Friday's [July 24] press conference, no element of this plan is set in place," he says. "Anything is subject to change, based on the comments of the planning commission and the comments of the public."

Holcombe's heard that before. In 1998, when business leaders associated with Cleveland Tomorrow introduced a lakefront development plan that didn't include the Mather, the ship's supporters flocked to public meetings en masse, wrote letters, and called public officials to demand its inclusion.

If the White administration really cared about whether the public supported the Mather, says Holcombe, it would have included the ship in its plan. The fact that it wasn't left some with the impression that the mayor himself wants the Mather banished from the lakefront.

Mayor-Mather relations have been sinking since the museum's long-term lease expired six years ago. In 1994, the mayor indicated that he would not discuss another lease until the museum improved attendance, secured funding, developed public restaurants on the ship, and demonstrated strong leadership. In 1995, City Council passed legislation directing the mayor to negotiate a 50-year lease of the East Ninth Street Pier, which White vetoed.

Then, in 1998, Cleveland Tomorrow's much-disputed lakefront plan called for the Mather to be moved from the pier. Although the ship's supporters were told that the mayor would suggest possible permanent locations by the end of that year, none was shared with Holcombe.

In fact, she says, the city hasn't returned phone calls about the issue for months.

"We've been pretty stonewalled," she says.

Currently, the Mather and the city have a yearly agreement allowing the ship to dock at the pier. Despite a heavily attended 75th year and a $25,000 grant from the state, the lack of a long-term lease has stalled the museum's attempts to attract more funding and step up programming needed for the ship to become a national attraction.

Regarding the Mather, as well as other aspects of the lakefront plan, Silliman insists the mayor will listen to the public.

"[Mather supporters] made their point, over and over and over again," he says. "The Mather is a question the public as a whole needs to decide. We hope the average person speaks out as well."

Aye, aye, Captain.

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