By Michael Fechter, Tampa Tribune

TAMPA - Ten months of talk boiled down to a three-hour sales pitch recently for a group eager to take a mothballed aircraft carrier and turn it into a waterfront museum.

A 10-member contingent, including local organizers, business representatives and consultants, made the presentation to the Naval Sea Systems Command outside Washington, D.C.

“It went very well,” said the Tampa group's Jack Martin.

The group wants to turn the 1,086-foot USS Forrestal into a museum north of the Florida Aquarium on Ybor Channel that features fighter planes, flight simulators and tributes to sailors who served on the ship during its service from 1954-1993.

Navy officials requested more information on a ship maintenance plan but generally accepted the proposal as offered, Martin said.

The meeting triggers a six- month clock for other communities to submit applications. After that, the naval command recommends a site to the Navy secretary, who then makes a recommendation to Congress. Congress can't vote on a custody award until it has met in 60 days of continual session. If that schedule holds up, a decision on the Forrestal could be made around March.

Confident that will happen, the Tampa group plans to launch a new fundraising drive and start seeking permits needed to dredge the channel and fix the port slip they want to lease, Martin said.

International Ship Repair & Marine Services holds a lease on that slip through February 2001. The Tampa Port Authority has made it clear that it won't trigger a cancellation clause in that lease to make room for the Forrestal. And the port also wants a plan to remove the carrier from Tampa in case the museum venture fails, said port authority spokeswoman Lori Rafter. The two sides are making progress on the issue, she said.

Baltimore is one likely competitor for the carrier. City officials have appeared before the naval command and will complete their application package in about two months, said the group's chairman, Frank Eurice. His advisory board has two former Forrestal commanding officers, including Rear Adm. John Beling, who was in charge during a 1967 fire in which 134 sailors died, and Capt. Tim Thomassy, who commanded the carrier from 1989-90 and now works for the Newport News Shipbuilding and Drydock Co., which built the Forrestal.

“I'm on the Baltimore team, but my biggest concern is that the ship be preserved and maintained somewhere as a museum,” Thomassy said. He would not object if that museum turns out to be in Tampa.

Michael Fechter can be reached at (813) 259-7621 or E-Mail