|The Schooner Virginia docked at Norfolk's Nauticus. Photo by Claire Trego Goodwin.|
Editorial: Your hole in the water
Virginia taxpayers shouldn't be forced to support private causes, like a schooner
October 27, 2010
Tied up to a dock in Norfolk is a wooden-hulled, two-masted, schooner-rigged, 122-foot long reminder of the kind of dubious decisions that elected officials sometimes make when the public money is flowing.
And flow it did in Virginia. Between 1999 and 2009, the annual state budget doubled from $22 billion to $44 billion. When the flow was particularly strong, the General Assembly was generous in diverting some of it to private organizations.
At least $5 million (about half of it federal transportation dollars that came to the state) showered down on the Schooner Virginia.
Why, you might ask, when colleges are underfunded and bridge maintenance is being deferred — and they were, even in those good days — did legislators think that the best use of public money was for a replica of a boat harbor pilots used in 1906 to guide vessels into and out of Hampton Roads?
The intent behind the schooner was to use it to teach sailing and seamanship, compete in races and generally preserve the memory of the state's long maritime heritage. It is a good idea, and the Virginia is an impressive sight under way.
But it's an idea that should be not just run but also funded by the private sector.
While young Virginians need to learn many things to prepare for life in the 21st century, how to trim sail on a schooner is not one of them. And while the stated purpose of promoting Virginia tourism and economic development sounds nice, how exactly does that work? Are corporate relocation decision-makers actually swayed by a floating "goodwill ambassador," as the project's backers like to call the Virginia?
Often the first stop on the fund-raising campaign for a private project is the General Assembly building. Many of its members enjoy winning friends by snagging some money — not theirs, of course, but taxpayers' — for a favorite cause back home.
So Virginians who did not choose to contribute to the Schooner Virginia project were compelled to contribute. Just as they were compelled to contribute to several churches, lots of arts groups, more than one railroad museum and many local social service programs serving specific communities.
Sometimes these legislative favors make sense, when the project delivers a meaningful service for Virginia and Virginians and there's a reasonable connection to the public realm. But that's a hard case to make for the Birthplace of Country Music Alliance.
To the Editor:
By Captain Stefan Edick
Master, Schooner Virginia
A ship that is dead in the water makes for an easy target, and so it is no surprise that the Editorial Board of the Daily Press has seized upon the recent news coverage of the schooner Virginia to weigh in on the subject of the public funding used in her construction and initial phase of operations. Hindsight is acute, as we all know, and in the current economic and political climate the temptation to criticize public expenditure for all but the most basic necessities is all but irresistible. To use the current context to evaluate past decisions, however, is to employ a faulty critical faculty.
In times of prosperity great governments have, throughout history, chosen to make expenditures from the public coffers for the public good. Such was the case with the schooner Virginia, which received but a tiny fraction of the nearly $200 million per year Non-State Agency funding allocated by the Commonwealth. The funds were disbursed to a wide variety of civic interests statewide, and while one can look at the list of projects and debate their individual merits, it is shortsighted and capricious to take the stance that each was the result of “legislative favors” rather than as investment in civic advancement.
Thousands toured the Harbor Park shipyard while she was being built, including schoolchildren from across the region, many introduced for the first time to the fact that such a magnificent vessel could be crafted by hand in traditional fashion.
When launched, the ship was celebrated across the region. She was perceived as a graceful and powerful testament to the capabilities of Southeastern Virginia, and while she could easily have been named “Pride of” or “Spirit of”, as other comparable vessels have, her simple naming spoke only to an eloquent representation of all the citizens of the Commonwealth.
|the "Schooner Virginia racing the "Pride of Baltimore II." Photo by Fred LeBlanc|
The answer to that question is elusive, but the question misses the mark.
As an educational platform, the ship has provided a challenging, success- driven learning environment for hundreds of adolescent students from all demographic groups, drawn from the communities of the region and beyond. Here again, the editorial displays a stunning lack of insight: “sail training” is a generic term applied to the practice of experiential learning aboard traditional ships, and while learning the mechanics of sail are part of the practice, the ship is the medium, and not the full extent of the message. Students, once placed in the demanding environment of a traditional sailing vessel, learn much more than how to trim sail, as the editorial suggests. Rather, they are charged with real work and real responsibilities as shipmates engaged in a common purpose, and one need only speak to the participants or their parents to learn just how powerful a positive impact the experience can have on their self-esteem and in introducing a new found awareness of their capabilities.
There’s even been a notable occasion on which the two missions have been combined. In the Halifax Tall Ships Festival of last year, the ship trained its complement of adolescent trainees to act as ambassadors of the Commonwealth, and utilized them as docents for the thousands of visitors that toured the ship. Each was able to demonstrate pride of accomplishment and pride of place in an exercise unusual if not unique among sail training ships. Have any of the thousands of Canadian visitors to Virginia Beach this year been influenced by their contact with these proud boys and girls? Again, the answer is elusive, but the question misses the mark.
The schooner Virginia has been a prominent participant in the Great Chesapeake Bay Schooner Race, organized annually to support the Chesapeake Bay Foundation’s efforts to protect and support the waterway. Here she’s developed a fiercely competitive yet gracious and thoroughly sportsmanlike rivalry with Pride of Baltimore II, and one could suggest that the rivalry’s example by itself would be valuable to both citizens and politicians in these contentious times.
So why, then, is the ship tied up alongside the dock at Nauticus? Here the editorial offers some constructive criticism, though again the thrust of the argument is faulty. While the Virginia Maritime Heritage Foundation can be criticized for some of its managerial and administrative decisions, the writer fails to consider that the organization was and has been engaged in the process of weaning itself from the public funding that got the project underway, as the last of the state funding allocated to the ship ended in fiscal year 2008. During the transition, however, the failing economy had a dramatic impact on the group’s traditional donor base, and private efforts fell well short of the revenue required to keep the ship going into 2010.
In the ten months since the ship has been idle, concerted efforts have been made by the Foundation’s Board of Directors to achieve a solution to the administrative shortcomings that have caused the hiatus, and much progress has been made. Numerous determined Board members and former staff have been serving as volunteers to watch over this proud asset in fair weather and foul, and to pursue the recruitment of the constituency the editorial identifies in support of future operations. To these ends we have been both assisted and inspired by a corps of dedicated volunteers, who have shown unflagging support of the vision with which the ship was originally launched.
Since the beginning date of the project, one can count some fifty-six stories in the Daily Press which feature the schooner Virginia either wholly or in part. Many of these stories and accompanying photographs appeared on the front page, whether of a dramatic and dramatically nautical marriage proposal during the Jamestown 400th celebration, or word of schooner Virginia’s record-breaking run down the Bay in the 2007 Great Chesapeake Bay Schooner Race. In these fifty six articles, there’s nary a word of criticism about the validity of the project or of the use of public funding in support of what is portrayed throughout as a vital asset valuable to all of your readership.
With more limited government resources available now and in the future, the schooner Virginia clearly will need to build upon its natural constituency to support its operations, and with determined effort will no doubt do so, perhaps as early as next year. Operating a sailing ship is no easy task in the best of times, and these clearly are not the best of times. It’s a shame the Daily Press has chosen to change tacks and jump on the bandwagon of criticism of this fine vessel after your paper has provided so much support for its construction and achievements.
Captain Stefan Edick
Master, Schooner Virginia