By Patrick Crowley
and Dan Klepal
The Cincinnati Enquirer
NEWPORT - The Ohio Riverfront already sports an eclectic offering of tourist attractions, from an aquarium and beer garden in Kentucky to pro sports stadiums and a soon-to-open Underground Railroad museum in Cincinnati. Will a submarine fit in?
"Absolutely," said Tom Caradonio, president of the Northern Kentucky Convention and Visitors Bureau. "It's another arrow in the quiver."
On Thursday, Kentucky U.S. Sen. Jim Bunning, a Southgate Republican, announced that the USS Narwhal, a decommissioned U.S. Navy nuclear submarine, is likely to be docked along Newport's Riverboat Row in about two years. It will be a tourist attraction as well as a tool to teach schoolchildren math and science, he said.
Tourism officials haven't yet calculated the potential economic impact of the attraction, but are already excited about what it will add to an area with Newport on the Levee, the Newport Aquarium, the Hofbrauhaus beer garden, Great American Ball Park, Paul Brown Stadium, the Purple People Bridge and the National Freedom Center Underground Railroad museum.
"A submarine sounds like it will be very valuable to tourism and education," said Jim Carroll, spokesman for the Kentucky Tourism Development Cabinet. "I think, like the Newport Aquarium, it will attract tourists as well as lots of school kids."
There are 18 decommissioned submarines converted to museums around the county, most of them World War II-era vessels.
In Cleveland, visitors pay $6 to board the USS Bowfin Museum and Park in Cleveland. Guests receive a portable cassette player that provides a guided tour of the vessel. About 30,000 people visit it annually, said ship keeper Dewey Hansen.
The USS Cobia has become the Wisconsin Maritime Museum in Manitowoc, Wis., a small town near Lake Michigan. About 45,000 people a year visit and tour the World War II sub, according to museum development manager Patty Ressler.
Operators of existing Ohio River attractions say the Narwhal will bring even more visitors to what is fast becoming a major tourist destination.
"We think it's awesome, we are very happy about it," said Jill Issacs, spokeswoman for the Newport Aquarium, which sits just above Riverboat Row and will be one of the Narwhal's closest neighbors.
"Anything that brings people to the riverfront is positive, and it really will benefit everyone that is on the river," she said.
Last year, the aquarium drew more than 500,000 visitors.
Travel Agent Debra Haynes of the Travel Store in Forest Park said the submarine alone wouldn't attract out-of-town visitors to the riverfront.
"But as part of everything the riverfront has to offer, it fits in great," Haynes said. "People will make it one of their stops when they come to visit."
Though Northern Kentucky clearly scored a coup in landing the sub, any new attraction benefits the entire region, including downtown Cincinnati, said Julie Calvert, vice president of communications for the Greater Cincinnati Convention and Visitors Bureau.
"Cincinnati and Northern Kentucky are both part of the same region, and anything good happening in Northern Kentucky is good for everybody in the region," she said. "The submarine is definitely something we will use to market Greater Cincinnati to tourists around the country."
The picture looks good, but it's not perfect, either.
Submarines are expensive to maintain.
In an Aug. 18 letter to Rep. Ken Lucas, a Boone County Democrat who worked on securing the vessel, Naval officials advised project backers that maintaining the submarine is an "admirable but ambitious" plan that "presents challenging technical and security issues and is ultimately very costly to initiate and maintain."
Submarines have to be dry-docked at least once every 10 years for cleaning, maintenance and repair.
"It costs about $1 million to put (a vessel) in dry dock," Hansen said. "You have to do that because you'll get rust, and you don't know what the bottom of the hull looks like."
In Wisconsin, annual maintenance on the USS Cobia costs about $240,000 a year.
Covington Independent Schools superintendent Jack Moreland, chairman of the National Submarine Science Discovery Center, said the board has no idea how much maintenance will cost.
"The museum and tours will generate an income, and I'm sure it will be more than adequate to take care of repairs and maintenance," Moreland said
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