I’m a sucker for a good “caper” movie. Give me protagonists with shady pasts who devise brilliant schemes to make themselves and their buddies rich and man that is just good old fashioned entertainment. This movie, ASSAULT ON A QUEEN, is a 1966…well…at best okay addition to the caper cannon. Sinatra just kinda walks through it, the plan has you wondering why they do things the way they do, never explains away nagging incongruities, and the two best acting performances are supplied by supporting characters (Franciosa and Conte). But in terms of audacious plans it’s hard to beat raising a sunken submarine, retrofitting it, and making it your get away vehicle for robbing an ocean liner at sea.
I’m sure by this point you’re probably thinking “okay where’s he going with this”. Patience. Just like a good caper movie you need all the backstory.
The film’s ocean liner is a real ship, the RMS Queen Mary. When used for the filming it was in it’s next to last year as a seafaring vessel. Soon after the filming was completed Cunard/White Star sold the Queen Mary to the City of Long Beach in southern California where it has been permanently moored for the past 54 years. It has functioned as a hotel, convention center, and general tourist attraction for all that time.
The city had leased the ship to a management company who agreed to run the facility and keep it in good shape. “Just send us the check each month” seemed to be the municipal attitude. But Grande Dames, especially those of the ocean going variety, need constant maintenance and upkeep. Constant maintenance and upkeep costs a lot of money. For as long as tourists paid their way onboard to see how the other half once traveled or conventioneers thought it was a hoot to stay on a ship instead of a Sheraton things were fine. For the last year and a half though the tourists haven’t been coming. Neither were the checks. And an independent inspection of the ship’s condition showed that it needed over a hundred million dollars just to get it back to a state that would keep it afloat for the next 25 years. It would be close to half a billion dollars to retrofit it to last another hundred years.
The management company, when informed of the repairs needed, basically said “New phone, who dis?” and declared bankruptcy, leaving the City of Long Beach holding the proverbial bag and forcing the city council to debate what to do with the ship. By the end of the debate I’m sure most of the council members were wondering why in hell their predecessors had come up with this cockamamie scheme.
Their options, according to the Daily Mail, came down to three:
Option 1: Renovate and preserve the Queen Mary for 100 years
It’s estimated that preserving the Queen Mary until 2120 could cost taxpayers between $200 million and $500 million. Extensive repairs and upgrades would need to take place on a dry dock and could take several years to complete.
Option 2: Renovate and preserve the Queen Mary for 25 years
Experts say short-term preservation could cut immediate costs to the taxpayer. Marine engineering firm Moffatt & Nichol says taxpayers will fork out $150 million and $175 million to keep the boat viable as a tourist attraction until the late 2040s.
Option 3: Dismantle and/or sink the boat
It is estimated that either sinking or dismantling the boat could cost upwards of $105 million because metal from the 81,000 ton vessel would have to be transported to a scrap facility or moved further out into the ocean
First of all it’s a ship, not a boat. A ship can carry a boat. A boat can never carry a ship. End of naval semantics lesson.
Long Beach has reaped a yearly tax profit of about $3.5 million off the Queen Mary. If they retrofitted it to live another 25 years they’d make give or take $80 million in those years. Yeah, not enough to cover the cost of the repairs. But still better than spending $105 million to scrap it and get…nothing. For the hundred year plan they’d need one of those space billionaires to suddenly become interested in the history of grand ocean travel. Something tells me that’s not going to happen.
I give props to the city council for not turning their study session/debate into an episode of The Blame Game. They seem to have taken the very adult attitude that solving the problem is more important than assigning fault. Me, I’m just a pundit so I get to assign fault.
Just like the gang in the movie, the management company came up with a brilliant plan to make a fortune out of the old ship, then slipped away in the dead of pandemic. I doubt they used a submarine but I’m pretty sure they used some sub-ethical business practices. “I know we signed a contract to keep the ship in good shape, but we didn’t and we’re out of business now so so sad too bad, see ya”.
54 years ago the city bought the ship intending to make it a tourist attraction that would drive tourists down the freeway from Universal Studios or Disneyland. Great idea and hiring a private company to run it and be responsible for it’s upkeep was a reasonable allocation of resources. But like so many other public/private ventures, the public side of the equation lost track of what the private side was doing. Little by little the cash register jingled less, but the ship kept deteriorating. Then one fine day the crowds stopped coming altogether and that’s when the ship really hit the fantail.
Ultimately the responsibility falls on the city. The ship belonged to them and they should have been making regular inspections of it and demanding at least yearly accountings of repairs made and repairs needing to be made. This was in effect a straight up commercial lease. Unlike residential leases, in a commercial lease it’s up to the lessee to maintain the property and if they don’t they can get the boot. Or be made to walk the plank in this case.
There are a lot of situations across the country like this, a public property being run by a private entity. From national parks to prisons to even aspects of the Armed Forces governments have abdicated their responsibility to run these institutions in favor of just paying some company to run it for them. Economy of resources is always the justification, along with the private sector knows better how to run a business. Funny thing is, every time something goes wrong it ends up with the public side of the public/private entity dipping into their pockets and the private side slipping away in the night. I will leave the question of whether this is a scandal of incompetent oversight or pay for play politics for the investigative journalists.
Me, I’ll just say that though it started before him this is just another example of the Trumpification of the US. It’s time to get rid of privately run public entities. Because when the bottom line replaces the greater good as the guiding principle of any venture you can bet on a bad outcome. That goes whether it’s a tourist attraction or a prison system.