More than half of the state's annual funding was cut over the last few years. Twenty percent of the full-time staff has been laid off. Attendance is down 10 percent this year.
But the Battleship New Jersey is staying afloat financially through creative strategies that officials hope will help it bounce back stronger when the economy improves.
Plans are being developed to better illuminate the ship and create a laser show that would - along with smoke and sound effects - simulate the firing of Big J's massive guns.
This year, the tourist attraction on the Camden waterfront is holding special events, such as the party that drew 1,800 people for the fireworks display on New Year's Eve, and the July Fourth "high-end barbecue that brought in close to six figures in profits."
It also stepped up its sleepover encampment program, now expected to bring in about 20,000 visitors this year. And it's planning new tours, including one that will allow people to load a projectile and powder bags in a turret below one of the big guns bristling from the deck.
"The new mantra is: 'If we can't create a 'wow,' we're not going to do it,'" said James Schuck, who was named the president and chief executive officer of the Battleship New Jersey Museum and Memorial over the summer.
"If it is a 'wow,' it will attract people and, once they come, the ship sells itself. You fall in love with it."
Schuck, the ship's former executive vice president and chief financial officer for four years, said he hopes to see the ship's new illumination and laser display sometime next year.
"We have a company putting together a whole plan," he said. "People get a kick out of seeing the ship come alive."
In June, Big J found another way of making money. It auctioned off the right to sit in a gunner's chair and fire a five-inch gun. The weapon was loaded with a pound and a half of gunpowder and the blast - the first from its barrel in 20 years - was impressive. So was the price for firing it: $2,600.
The battleship opened as a waterfront destination in 2001, and for several years received $3 million in annual state aid. In 2007, the funding was slashed to $2.8 million. That was followed by cuts in successive years to $1.5 million and $1.35 million.
"We used a lot of the state money to pay old debt," Schuck said. "We had to pay for maintenance, vendors, a cleaning company. We were getting to a good place in 2006."
Then came the cuts.
The attraction, which is said to pump $9.2 million into the state economy annually, was faced with tough choices as a result of dwindling funding, and flat attendance during the sour economy.
"We're constantly restructuring," Schuck said. "When we made cuts, we tried to make them for positions that would not affect what the guests would see. We focused on the things that would bring them back."
Last year, the ship laid off its director of marketing, tour operations manager, director of development, and others. And it began to depend more heavily on its 300-member crew of volunteers. Over the last eight years, they've put in a half-million hours, tour-guiding, painting, repairing and maintaining the 887-foot-long vessel, the longest battleship ever built.
"I can't say enough about the volunteers; we couldn't operate without them," Schuck said. "Forty-two of them are World War II veterans. Others who were in the Army, Navy, and Air Force had also served on board and came back as volunteers.
"We have teachers, former FBI agents, welders, floorers," he said "You name it, we have it. They bring a whole wealth of talent and passion for this project."
The ship has 10 paid full-time staff members and about 35 part-time staffers.
"We can't cut the staff anymore, but we can draw more people," said Schuck.
The deck that once shook with the power of the 16-inch guns today offers free self-guided tours for union members with valid identification. On Sept. 18, the Flyers will hold a pre-season pep rally there. And on Sept. 25, an oldies rock 'n' roll show and concert will be held.
In addition to state funds, the Big J receives about $1 million in private contributions for operating expenses annually; $1.2 million comes from tours, with about $800,000 in income from encampments, where visitors spend the night on the vessel.
It is the nation's most decorated battleship and the second-most-decorated ship in the Navy's history, having faced down many enemies over the last 66 years - from World War II through combat actions in Korea, Vietnam and Lebanon.
These days, its enemy has been the state budget ax and weak economy. But Schuck said the warship is weathering the storm.
"Things are working out positively," he said. "We're working toward that time when we can go forward without worrying about state aid. We're not there yet, but we're pushing."