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Casino boat offers to buy river property

Eventually, casino boat gambling may sail into coastal Citrus County, Crystal River Mayor Curtis Rich acknowledged Monday.

But don't place your bets just yet, he said.

SunCruz Casino, one of four companies that have expressed interest in operating a casino gambling ship in Citrus County, made an official offer to buy the 5-acre Crystal River Yacht Club property after visiting the site this weekend, said Tracy Luepkes, a SunCruz spokeswoman.

Details of the offer were not disclosed.

Environmentalists, city officials and business owners have speculated about the sale of the yacht club's former home since last month, when the Times first reported that a casino boat gambling operation might be among the potential buyers.

In the past few days, however, that speculation has turned into rumors and misinformation, yacht club owner Anthony Marino said.

"The straight story is, there is nothing final until the papers and everything else is signed and the money exchanges hands," Marino said Monday.

Marino has received at least two offers other than the one from SunCruz, which is based in Port Richey. One offer came from the state Department of Environmental Protection and one from a private, international company that hopes to open a restaurant at the site.

That company has expressed interest in leasing the yacht club dock to a casino gambling boat company.

Rich has worked with that company to try to lure it to Crystal River. He said his role as mayor includes attracting jobs for the city.

The company's plans would include building a two-story waterfront restaurant with a panoramic view of the Crystal River, Rich said.

Two of the four companies interested in running a casino boat would base their operation at the yacht club, Rich said. Another company has inquired about running a gambling boat out of the barge canal, and another is interested in operating one out of Inglis.

Most of those investors or companies have only made inquiries about the area, Rich said. But the volume of interest about casino boat gambling in Citrus County has convinced the mayor that the city needs to understand the industry and try to lure those jobs to Crystal River.

"I think it's going to come, and the city of Crystal River needs to be prepared for it if it does," Rich said.

The state would like to buy the yacht club property for use as a manatee education center. The property is adjacent to another DEP land purchase, the land that was to become part of the Crystal Cove housing development.

The Crystal Cove land acquisition is to be complete soon, and both properties would become part of the St. Martins Marsh Aquatic Preserve.

The yacht club property is zoned for light commercial business, and Marino indicated Monday that he would like his property to provide some jobs for Crystal River.

"We're talking about putting a lot of people to work," Marino said. "If it goes to the state, it's a dead (end)."

Matt Clemons, manager of the St. Martins preserve, said he is concerned about the environmental impact of a casino boat operating in the Crystal River. The depth of the channel is sometimes as little as 7 feet, and the area's largest number of manatee-boat collisions occur near the yacht club.

Allowing the casino operation into the Crystal River would generate property taxes and other fees for the city, Rich said.

"I love the state environmental people and so on," Rich said. "But when there's high and dry commercial property in the city, I feel very strongly we should keep that on the tax rolls if we can provide jobs for our people and provide an economic base."

Rich said the restaurant investors he is working with could offer cash for the property, as could the state. SunCruz would also pay cash, Luepkes said.

In Port Richey, SunCruz employs 250 people, and its two boats take two six-hour cruises each day. They travel into international waters to gamble and draw as many as 1,000 people for each of the four daily cruises.

Luepkes estimated that 15 percent to 20 percent of the Port Richey casino boat customers are from Citrus County. She said her company would like to lease the property but understands that Marino is looking to sell it.

"If a lease agreement were actually a workable situation, or if the purchase is the better situation, it would depend on how things actually fall," Luepkes said. "It's always a wait-and-see."

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