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Alumni Association faces eviction from Kings Point campus

Written by Nick Blenkey

eviction USMMAAAAPRIL 25, 2013 — ­More depressing news from the U.S. Merchant Marine Academy.  Superintendent James Helis is booting the Alumni Association & Foundation out of its headquarters on the USMMA’s Kings Point, NY, campus. In fact, he’s given the Association an April 30 deadline to vacate its Babson Center premises and has apparently offered it no alternative accommodations.

The paranoid among us might suspect that there is some sort of vendetta going on between the Department of Transportation and the Association, which was less than supportive of Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood’s decision two years ago to oust Superintendent Helis’s predecessor, Admiral Phil Greene, himself a Kings Point alumnus.

Be that as it may, the Association has written alumni, parents and Kings Point supporters to inform them of what it calls “alarming recent events.” Following is the text of the letter

Urgent: Alumni Association and Foundation Evicted from USMMA Campus

All Alumni, Parents and supporters of Kings Point:

This letter is written to apprise you of alarming recent events – the demand by newly appointed Superintendent James Helis that the Alumni Association & Foundation (AAF) leave the Academy by 10 AM, April 30th, 2013.

Some of the following may be difficult to read. We know this, because it was equally difficult to write.

If you remember the firing of Superintendent Phil Greene KP ’78 by Secretary of Transportation Ray LaHood without explanation two years ago, then you will find this situation to be remarkably familiar – this time the focus of the punitive action is our Alumni Association and Foundation. Both Admiral Greene and the Alumni Association and Foundation are Kings Pointers through and through – standing up to do the right thing for the Academy in good times and bad.

Right now, times are very bad indeed and we need your help.

As you know, the Alumni Association and Foundation’s offices have been located on Academy grounds – at the Academy’s request – since 1957 and the simple agreement has been that the Foundation would be given office space on the Academy’s premises at no rental cost in exchange for the support it provides the Academy.

All of the service academies (and virtually all colleges and universities) alumni organizations have been invited to locate on campus property with land and/or offices at no charge; while Superintendent Helis moves in the opposite direction.

Even Superintendent Helis’ own alma mater, West Point, has its Association of Graduates centrally located on the grounds of West Point, as does Mr. LaHood’s alma mater, Bradley University.

Throughout our sixty year history, we have been there for the Academy. Political appointees and staff come and go, but the AAF has always been there, run by Kings Pointers for the benefit of Kings Point.

We are located on the grounds of the Academy where midshipmen stream through our offices looking for Alumni support and guidance. Every year, we are there working closely with Congress to ensure the Academy’s budget is adequate for the school’s needs. We are there raising the millions of dollars that the Academy needs in addition to appropriated funds to remain viable. Over just the past ten years, we have raised over $22 million! We are there providing support to the athletic teams, clubs, Band, and sailors – we are the place that midshipmen go to for support, the place that alumni go to network with the Academy, industry, employers and classmates. It is also the place that Congress connects with as they support the Academy’s mission.

All of this happens on board the Academy in Babson Center, a central location for alumni, midshipmen, visitors, faculty, and staff.

But Admiral Helis wants to close this office down. And he is not offering alternate space. He wants the AAF off the campus. Why?

On November 30th of last year, just three months into his new job, Superintendent Helis handed the AAF a letter which, amongst other items, declared that he was “rescinding” the 2004 agreement between the Academy and the AAF which is described below. This was a startling announcement by a new Superintendent against an organization which had deep, positive relationships with the 11 Superintendents who preceded him.

Further, he presented us with a lease which he personally executed that required the AAF to leave Babson by June 30th (a date now shortened to April 30th). Among other things, that lease mandated that he had the unilateral “right to terminate this Lease…upon 10 days’ notice to Tenant”, effectively making it a worthless 10-day lease. It also demanded that the Foundation pay “the total amount of $29/square foot per month.” Annualized, that equates to rent of $1,785,168/yr for our small space above the Fitch garage and warehouse. Discussions were held with Admiral Helis, MARAD and DOT over problematic issues in the lease, including these, but no changes were made. We were also told that the lease had been carefully vetted by the Superintendent and lawyers from DOT and MARAD.

We have asked Superintendent Helis to re-consider. We have asked that he permit us to remain at Babson until the new Lerner Alumni House, with its planned office space and Academy Visitor’s Center, is available for occupancy. We have asked his support in obtaining zoning variances necessary for this new use. Superintendent Helis has refused to allow us to stay at Babson beyond April 30th and he has refused to assist us in our permitting efforts for the Lerner Center.

When we asked the Superintendent why he was forcing us off campus, he stated that our offices in Babson Center are needed for academic “swing” space because Samuels Hall will be under renovation—something that will not occur until late 2014 at the earliest (funding has not even been appropriated).

During a recent meeting with Congressional staff, the AAF learned that MARAD had told Congress that the AAF was offered alternate space on board the Academy and that we refused it. However, no alternate space was ever offered to us. When questioned about this by alumni at the Spring Meeting last week, Admiral Helis denied that he had told Congress or MARAD that, and further he refused to offer us alternate space, in spite of what Congress was told.

Hopefully like us, you want to know why Admiral Helis wants to remove our charitable organization from the campus. He must know the detrimental effect this will have on our operations. He knows there will be a vacuum created for fundraising that the federal government cannot fill. And clearly he must know what a negative impact this will have on the midshipmen, faculty, staff, and visitors – all of whom know that Babson Center and the AAF is the first place to go when visiting the Academy and the first place to go when alumni support is needed.

The AAF provides relationship, mentoring, and liaison services in addition to the fund raising activities that it does every day for the midshipmen and the Academy on Academy grounds. In fact, responsible officials at MARAD were so sensitive to the importance of the relationship of the Academy and the AAF that they put a legal opinion in writing 30 years ago that we not only must be located on board the Academy, but that we belong there rent free. In 2004, the relationship was further cemented by an agreement put forth by the Academy that the AAF is the sole representative of the alumni and the primary fundraiser for the Academy.

While not understanding the motivation of the new Superintendent, but in an effort to compromise, we offered to pay rent of $5,000 per month and to stay in Babson until we were able to move to the new Lerner Center. In response, Superintendent Helis refused to entertain further discussion and has refused to make a counter-proposal. To the contrary, on April 8, in response to our proposals, he moved the June 30 vacate date up to April 30, and demanded that the Foundation vacate the premises on that date. This past Friday, April 19 we presented him with another signed offer which he refused to even receive, much less read or consider.

As Superintendent Helis knows, until the Lerner Center is available, the Foundation has no alternate location to conduct its business. He, apparently, would prefer we pay rent to an outside landlord than reside at the Academy and use those dollars to help the midshipmen.

While the Lerner Center is undergoing permitting and construction, we believe that Melville Hall (the Officers Club) would make excellent temporary office space. Melville Hall is currently closed, having been shuttered by MARAD over six months ago. Putting temporary offices in Melville Hall is a win-win, as it provides the AAF office space, while reactivating a building which is needed for Homecoming, events, weddings, award ceremonies, etc. and can be operated in the future by the AAF for the benefit of all its stakeholders.

We remain hopeful that we can work out a common-sense solution, but believe it important to inform you of this state of affairs.

We are asking all alumni, parents, and friends of Kings Point to write or call Superintendent Helis ([email protected], 516-726-5812) and Secretary LaHood ([email protected]) to specifically endorse that the Alumni Association & Foundation remain on campus – just like at West Point and just like at Bradley University.

We also urge you to contact your representatives in Congress (http://www.house.gov/representatives/find/) and the Senate, tell them the facts, and ask them to intervene immediately.

We are hopeful for a prompt resolution to this issue, and we appreciate your support of the Academy and of its Alumni Association & Foundation.


The all-volunteer Board of the
US Merchant Marine Academy
Alumni Association & Foundation

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