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Gambling boat 'Big Easy' soon may leave void at Port of St. Petersburg

The Big Easy, a tenant of the Port of St. Petersburg since 2006, may be on its way out. A potential buyer is expected in town next week.

ZACH BOYDEN-HOLMES | Times (2006)

The Big Easy, a tenant of the Port of St. Petersburg since 2006, may be on its way out. A potential buyer is expected in town next week.

When it arrived, city officials said the vessel was only making a temporary stop in St. Petersburg.

Forced out of the Port of Palm Beach as a precaution before the start of hurricane season in 2006, the Big Easy casino boat floated into the Port of St. Petersburg just looking for pier space.

But that was 3 1/2 years ago.

Since that time, the Big Easy has been like a lumbering bear in hibernation at the port at 250 Eighth Ave. SE. The owner filed for Chapter 11 protection in U.S. Bankruptcy Court not long after its arrival.

The Big Easy was acquired in 2004 by the Palm Beach Casino Line and sent to Jacksonville for a $12 million facelift. After emerging from dry-dock in April 2005, it was delayed for months, waiting for the Coast Guard to approve its modifications.

By the time the vessel was cleared to sail, Hurricane Wilma was bearing down on South Florida, which forced another delay. In turn, the delays led to financial problems, and just before the start of hurricane season in 2006, the Port of Palm Beach told the casino line to move the ship elsewhere.

The 238-foot New Orleans-themed ship, which is painted in hues of purple and green, boasts a 30,000-square-foot casino with 23 gaming tables.

Alas, the festive-looking vessel has been no boon for residents or tourists — but that was never the intent. The city is making money. And if the Big Easy is indicative of anything, taxpayers are footing the bill for a port that has evolved into a floating garage.

According to court documents, the city gets roughly $6,000 a month in port fees for the vessel. In addition, records show the ship's crew of five is being housed at the Hotel Ponce de Leon.

On Friday, the St. Petersburg Times learned that a potential buyer will be in town next week. If there is a sale, the ship could depart in about two weeks, said Julio Araque, 37, the ship's captain. He arrived here three months ago from Miami.

If the ship does depart, the drab little port that now sits in the shadows of the newly built high-tech research firm SRI International will surely miss the thousands of dollars the Big Easy pays in dock fees.

"They've been good tenants," said Walt Miller, the city's marina and port manager.

Calls to City Hall seemed to send officials scrambling for cover. The port has been an underachiever for a city that has long had cruise ship hub and megayacht aspirations, but without federal funding its reality is closer to that of a dinghy.

The port, founded in the 1920s, has been home to an industrial terminal, the Coast Guard and, during World War II, a Merchant Marine training center. Cruise ship activity began in the 1970s, but it never flourished. The Sea Escape Cruises four-year stint at the port ended in 1991.

In 1999, the city approved a $14.8 million port master plan that would focus on education and tourism. Then in August 2001, the city turned down an $820,000 state grant for port improvements, citing an inability to come up with matching funds.

Next came a short-lived gambling boat venture with the 450-foot Ocean Jewel that was interesting, to say the least.

Problems abounded. A tram taking passengers from the parking lot to the port caught fire. The Coast Guard uncovered several safety violations on the ship. At least twice ferries making the trip between the offshore ship and the port struck area bridges. At times, gamblers were stranded overnight on the ship miles offshore because of mechanical problems with the ferryboats or bad weather.

On the bright side, the city did finally receive $152,000 in revenues in 2007 — two years after the failed vessel ceased operating in 2005.

With SRI International set to open at the port on Dec. 18 and the C.W. Bill Young Marine Science Center at neighboring USF St. Petersburg, the education component of the port's master plan seems well under way. But the tourism component leaves much to be desired.

The only tenants at the port last week were the fading Big Easy and a gleaming, 280-foot megayacht, Grandluxe, which has been moored at the port since late winter at a cost of $7,000 per month.

"When you think about the subsidies the city provides, it (the port) represents what we get the least for in return," said Karl Nurse, the City Council member whose district includes the port.

Nurse compared the port's subsidies to the Mahaffey Theater and Sunken Gardens, citing that those venues host hundreds of events annually.

But with little talk of cruise ships calling the Port of St. Petersburg home, Nurse said, the port represents "the trail of failed dreams."

"It is definitely one of the things we'll be looking at in the coming year," he said.

Sandra J. Gadsden is editor of Neighborhood Times. She can be reached at (727) 893-8874 or sgadsden@sptimes.com.

Gambling boat 'Big Easy' soon may leave void at Port of St. Petersburg 11/14/09 [Last modified: Friday, November 13, 2009 6:57pm]

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