Cash-poor S.S. United States sends out SOS

Historic Cruise Ship
The S.S. United States has been languishing in Philadelphia for 19 years. The conservancy that owns it is running out of money and may have to sell the liner for scrap.

On the outside, not much has changed. The once-grand S.S. United States continues to rust along a South Philadelphia pier.

On the inside, some things have significantly changed, and not for the better:

The conservancy that is trying to restore the iconic ocean liner - and that set an end-of-the-month, save-it-or-scrap-it deadline - has seen its fund-raising decline dramatically. While its officials insist that a secret developer is closer than ever to a suitable proposal, the ship needs time.

And time, for the S.S. United States, is pricey.

Public tax documents show that donations dropped 95 percent in two years, from nearly $4.2 million in 2011 to $213,000 in 2013, the latest year for which figures are available.

"It is certainly true that in recent years, we have by necessity become a leaner organization," said Susan Gibbs, executive director of the S.S. United States Conservancy, the Washington-based nonprofit that owns the ship. "We have been remarkably efficient with the resources we have. . . . So much of our funding is invested directly into our mission, preserving the vessel."

Twelve days ago, the conservancy announced that it intended to hire a broker to explore selling the ship to a recycler by Oct. 31, an outcome that could be avoided only by a sudden infusion of cash.

Gibbs, whose grandfather designed the ship, could not say how much money was needed by month's end.

There was no sign last week of where that cash might be found. Or that the ship might soon depart Pier 82, where it rises over Columbus Boulevard, costing $60,000 a month to maintain.

The tax documents provide a year-by-year snapshot of a conservancy that operates in constant search of money, seeking donations through its website, emails and events.

The conservancy had a deficit of $358,686 in 2013, tax records show. The group's net assets decreased from $3.6 million in 2011 to $3.1 million in 2013.

Donations totaled $889,928 in 2010. The next year, that figure soared to $4.2 million. But in 2012 it fell to $1.2 million, and in 2013 fell again to $213,753.

From 2012 to 2013, Gibbs' pay as executive director went from $75,000 to zero.

In a recent fund-raising pitch, the conservancy said it raised more than $447,575 in 2014. That figure, though, represents roughly seven months of docking and service costs.

The group announced in February that it had received an anonymous $250,000 donation. And, in the week since the latest call for cash, Gibbs said $56,000 was raised.

The conservancy recently broke down how it spends every donated dollar: 40 cents on pier rental, 25 cents on ship insurance, 21 cents on ship maintenance, and 6 cents on administration.

That leaves 8 cents of every dollar for outreach and programming.

"Our mission is not to keep the ship afloat in its current condition indefinitely," Gibbs said. "That does no one any good. Our mission is to really serve as a temporary steward of the vessel, to advance a viable redevelopment plan."

While working toward redevelopment, the conservancy has produced a website and documentary film, and gathered a collection of art and artifacts from the ship. Raising public interest in the vessel is an important accomplishment, Gibbs said.

The ship has languished in Philadelphia for 19 years, landing here after years of sales and auctions during which its interior was stripped. The S.S. United States Conservancy incorporated as a nonprofit in 2009, buoyed by ship lovers who saw the vessel as a monument to American imagination.

Gifts totaling $5.8 million from prominent Philadelphia philanthropist H.F. "Gerry" Lenfest, owner of The Inquirer, enabled the conservancy to buy the ship in 2011 and go forward with rescue plans.

Lenfest said last week that he had no intention of intervening now, and knew of no others who might.

"I've already put up a lot of money to give the conservancy reasonable time to restore it," he said. "I have no plans to do anything further."

If the ship is scrapped, the proceeds from the sale are to go to his foundation, Lenfest said. Robert Berry, a vice president of International Shipbreaking in Brownsville, Texas, said his company had been approached about a potential deal.

"They are ready to sell it right now but they picked a real bad time," Berry said. "The scrap market has tanked. At this moment, they're going to have to pay to get rid of it."

In its day, the S.S. United States was a queen, longer than the Titanic. Designed by naval architect William Francis Gibbs of Philadelphia it was built in Newport News, Va., with steel from the Lukens company in Coatesville.

The ship's 1952 maiden voyage shattered the trans-Atlantic speed record, which it still holds. But in the 1960s, plane travel made liners outmoded.

The conservancy sees the United States reborn as some combination of office space, condos and a museum on the New York City waterfront, but has provided few details of how that would be accomplished.

It entered into a preliminary agreement earlier this year to advance the ship's redevelopment with "some of the nation's most qualified, respected, and innovative developers and managers of commercial real estate."

It identified none by name.

Nondisclosure agreements limit what information can be publicly shared, the conservancy said. Gibbs said the signing of those agreements, while necessary, "has challenged us on the fund-raising front. It is difficult to build enthusiasm for a project that cannot be elaborated upon."

The group earlier sold one of the ship's massive propellers, and in July 2014 was poised to sell another when Jim Pollin of the Pollin Group donated $220,000 to halt the sale.

"I'm feeling extremely positive right now," Pollin said in an interview last week, adding that he was not privy to details of conservancy planning. "I know Susan is working really hard to save the ship."

The conservancy made a similar do-or-die declaration a year ago, saying in August 2014 that crucial decisions about the ship would have to be made that fall.

Joseph Henwood, of the Binnacle Group L.L.C. in Media, said then that he was speaking to investors who expected to win the ship once the conservancy ran out of money. The plan was to create a floating hotel near the Harrah's casino in Chester.

Last week, Henwood said that plan was now "a long shot," because potential investors have withdrawn. He blamed the conservancy for what he called drawn-out, last-gasp efforts that hurt a realistic proposal to save the ship. "They've failed," Henwood said. "They're now marketing their own demise."

jgammage@phillynews.com

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@JeffGammage