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Academy set for future at ‘higher level’

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Posted: Thursday, March 15, 2012 2:29 pm | Updated: 2:57 pm, Thu Mar 15, 2012.

Secretary of Transportation Ray LaHood met with students, faculty and a U.S. Merchant Marine Academy steering committee on Tuesday to launch what he said was a strategic plan aimed at taking the Kings Point service academy “to a higher level.”

After addressing the midshipmen as part of a closed-door town hall meeting, LaHood met with reporters outside of Wiley Hall to discuss the Merchant Marine Academy’s future including facility upgrades, the search for its next superintendent and a new training vessel.

“I told them that I couldn’t be any happier with the academics here,” LaHood said of his meeting with the midshipmen. “I think the evaluation that was done last fall … shows that this is an outstanding educational institution.”

But the Merchant Marine Academy’s aging infrastructure, which largely dates back to the institution’s founding in 1943, left much to be desired for LaHood.

A federal report filed in 2010 outlined the need for $300 million in repairs to the academy’s facilities.

“I also told them that I want better facilities,” LaHood said. “That’s the reason that I have gone to Congress the last three years and gotten millions of dollars to fix up the facilities. The one thing that’s kind of a black eye here is the facilities and we’re going to do better.”

Renovations to the Merchant Marine Academy’s mess hall, pier and electrical grid will be made through $54 million in “capital improvement” funds appropriated by Congress from the Department of Transportation’s budget, LaHood’s Deputy Director for Public Affairs Meghan Keck said.

“It will be used to really fix up the facilities here,” LaHood said. “It’s money that I requested from Congress to really make sure that the facilities are in a state of good repair.”

LaHood said repairs will “start immediately.”

“We have a new maintenance person that’s on the grounds now,” LaHood said. “He mentioned to the students that there’s a timetable and there’s a game plan for moving ahead with, not only the short-term maintenance, but the bigger projects too.”

Another way to create stability for the future of the Merchant Marine Academy is through the selection process for the institution’s new superintendent.

Former Superintendent Rear Adm. Philip H. Greene Jr. was reassigned in October to become the National Defense University’s transportation chairman.

Greene, who was the Merchant Marine Academy’s third superintendent in three years, was previously director of the U.S. Navy Irregular Warfare Office.

The search for the academy’s next superintendent is ongoing, LaHood said.

“Soon for the superintendent,” he said. “You can go on our Web site. We have the job posted there. We know what we’re looking for an we want to find the very best person we can.”

The process to find a ship to replace the academy’s previous training vessel the “Kings Pointer” is also on-going.

The vessel, used by midshipmen for hands-on training at sea, was transferred to Texas A&M University’s Galveston campus in December.

“It went somewhere else because it could be better utilized somewhere else,” LaHood said. “We want to make sure that we have a vessel here that can really be utilized and can be of value to our students.”

LaHood said several potential replacement ships have been targeted and could be ready for use at the Merchant Marine Academy within “a couple of months.”

“We’re committed to getting a ship here that really reflects the kind of curriculum that will be most helpful to the students,” he said.

Although many changes should soon by coming to the Merchant Marine Academy, LaHood said one thing will always remain the same.

“We want to be good neighbors,” LaHood said. “I think we have been good neighbors, but we want to continue to be good neighbors. We want the people in this neighborhood to feel like the Merchant Marine Academy is a real asset for their neighborhood.”

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