Washougal city councilor revisits Navy ship idea

Ray Kutch wants to use decommissioned vessel for museum, community center

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Amphibious assault ship USS Peleliu conducts local operations near the Southern California coast. (Photo by Mass Communication Specialist Second Class Kerryl Cacho courtesy of U.S. Navy)

Seven years after a failed attempt to site a decommissioned Navy aircraft carrier near Fairview, Oregon, a Washougal city councilman has resurrected the idea of bringing a Navy ship to the Columbia River.

This time, however, he wants to see the massive maritime vessel sited off Washougal’s shoreline.

“We’re not looking for any money from the community at this point,” Kutch told Washougal City Council members Monday, during the council’s workshop session. “All I’m looking for … is a resolution saying to the Navy, ‘We want a ship,’ and when they say, ‘Do you have community support?’ I can say, ‘Yes.'”

A Vietnam veteran and former Naval flight officer, Kutch has been touting the benefits of bringing a decommissioned Navy ship to the western edge of the Columbia River Gorge National Scenic Area for more than a decade.

From 2004 to 2010, Kutch was heavily involved with the USS Ranger Foundation, a group that tried to bring the famed aircraft carrier known as the “Top Gun of the Pacific Fleet” thanks to its role in the 1980s Tom Cruise movie, “Top Gun,” to Fairview, Oregon, where it would have been turned into a memorial and museum.

Despite garnering support from local, state and congressional officials — as well as raising more than $600,000 — the USS Ranger Foundation’s plans fell through in 2012, after Naval Sea Systems Command officials said the organization had not met the Navy’s extensive requirements for obtaining a ship.

A news article about the failed attempt, published in the Oregonian newspaper on Oct. 2, 2012, said the plan had a few “seemingly insurmountable obstacles,” including the temporary removal of a BNSF Railway bridge over the Columbia River and the dredging by the Army Corps of Engineers that would have been required for the aircraft carrier to make its way up the river to Fairview.

Instead of allowing the USS Ranger Foundation to adopt the vessel, the Navy decided to scrap the Ranger. By 2018, all that was left of the “Top Gun of the Pacific Fleet” were a few historic items preserved for display at the USS Lexington Museum in Corpus Christi, Texas.

Kutch said Tuesday that he had learned a lot from the Ranger project.

“It was a good learning experience,” Kutch said. “I know we have a lot of people to convince. This won’t happen overnight.”

This time around, Kutch, along with the supporters he’s gathered from local military groups, have their eye on a smaller, better maintained vessel — the USS Peleliu, an amphibious assault ship in the Navy’s inactive reserve in Hawaii.

“This is a smaller ship, about two-thirds the size of an aircraft carrier,” Kutch said. “It’s 800 feet long, 180 feet wide and has 3 acres (of deck space).”

“We wouldn’t be able to bring an aircraft carrier to Washougal,” Kutch said. “We couldn’t get it through the bridges. But this would fit perfectly.”

Those who support bringing the USS Peleliu to Washougal envision using the vessel as a Navy-Marine floating museum and educational center that would draw as many as 250,000 visitors to Washougal each year, combined with a community and events center.

“We’re the gateway to the Gorge. We have a lot of people going through this town, and I want to have a way to make them stop here,” Kutch told the Post-Record Tuesday. “We’re a little town, a bedroom community, and we will never have a huge manufacturer that will employ 200 or 300 people. What we have is a small business community, and we need to get people to stop here and come into town to have dinner and go into those small businesses.”

Although some councilors, including Ernie Suggs, said they thought it sounded like a good idea to site a decommissioned Navy ship in the Columbia River off Washougal’s shoreline, other councilors said they wanted more information and had questions about things like environmental concerns and blocking river views.

Councilwoman Alex Yost wanted to know when the community would be able to learn more.

“We can’t introduce it to the community full bore until the Navy says, ‘Yes, you can have a ship,'” Kutch said.

Kutch pointed to other cities that have had success “adopting” decommissioned Navy ships.

“If you haven’t been on the Midway in San Diego, you need to see it,” Kutch said Monday, referring to the USS Midway Museum in southern California, which opened in 2009, and attracts more than 1 million visitors each year.

A list of decommissioned Navy ships shows many smaller vessels and several submarines have made their way to sites throughout the country, including the USS Blueback, the decommissioned Navy submarine that is now part of the Oregon Museum of Science and Industry (OMSI) in Southeast Portland.

Obtaining these decommissioned ships, however, is not a simple process. The Midway Museum effort, for example, took 12 years and required 36 state permits.

“It’s a long process,” Kutch said. “I think we can do it in five to eight years. It’s not going to happen in two to three years unless we find some huge benefactor. It’s going to be tedious with a lot of fundraising required.”

Washougal Mayor Molly Coston called Kutch’s idea “a daunting, unusual adventure,” and said councilors were open to Kutch exploring next steps.

“While we weren’t saying we support it, our council gave a nod to (Kutch) that, if he wants to further explore it, we certainly would be up for that,” Coston said. “We (need to) see if we can even get to step one, because there are a lot of hurdles on this project.”