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Casino boat's arrival delayed

The long anticipated arrival of Titan Cruise ship has been delayed once again, this time by homeland security issues, the owners said.

The 450-foot Ocean Jewel of St. Petersburg had been expected to chug into the city's port next month and begin twice-daily gambling cruises by late March. Now the company's owners say it won't be ready until June.

They blame stricter security regulations prompted by the war in Iraq.

"The war created a lot of problems, just in trying to get labor and materials," said Paul Barbour, Titan's chief financial officer.

Before, the logistics of getting passengers on and off a ship were fairly simple. Now, with increased concerns about terrorism, ship owners must submit detailed plans outlining the security measures they will take, similar to the precautions used at airports.

Howard Steffes, the company's president, said security plans had been submitted to the U.S. Coast Guard when the rules were changed. So they had to revise all of their plans and resubmit them.

"They're turning ports into airports these days, basically," Steffes said. "But we're taking every possible precaution to ensure the safety of our passengers."

The Polish-built ship has been in Ajman, a port city in the United Arab Emirates, since May. Steffes said a suitable port in the United States is now sought for the finishing work on the ship, such as installing carpet and tile.

Once the ship arrives in the U.S., it will take about three months to make it ready for operations, Steffes said.

City officials say they're not troubled by the delay. So far, the fledgling company has fulfilled its obligations to the city, said Joe Zeoli, managing director of administration and finance.

The city has been banking on a big boost from the cruise ship company. A $325,000 increase in revenue for the city's port was included in the 2004 budget due to Titan.

The company's owners paid the city nearly $400,000 in July. That included a $108,000 deposit; another $108,000 for a full year's dockage fees and $165,000 to match a Florida Department of Transportation grant for improvements to the port.

The owners also signed a lease with the city in July, which set up a timetable for the start of operations. At the time, Titan had 90 days to begin operations before it was required to start paying dockage fees. That deadline expired Dec. 15, and Zeoli said Titan has already paid the city two months' fees, $18,000 in all.

If operations don't begin within a second 90 days, the company must pay double the dockage fees. After a third 90-day period, which expires June 15, the city can cancel the lease and keep the deposit.

"Financially, the city is well protected," Mayor Rick Baker said. "And it's not like there are a lot of other cruise ships looking to come into the port. In other words, Titan hasn't displaced anybody else."

This isn't the first setback Titan has experienced.

The launch of a gambling ship from the port of St. Petersburg was announced in December 2002. Baker was an enthusiastic supporter of the venture, saying it would erase the $150,000 annual subsidy the port costs taxpayers and attract hundreds of tourists to the city's downtown.

But the original owners quickly ran into financial difficulties. They pulled out of the project in March 2003, about the same time daily cruises were initially supposed to begin.

A new group of investors from Illinois, headed by Steffes, took over the operation in May and set up an office in downtown St. Petersburg, 100 First Ave. S.

The ship will eventually ferry passengers into the Gulf of Mexico for six- or seven-hour cruises, the company owners said. A large casino will be the main draw, but the ship will also have a nightclub, a restaurant and several private party rooms.

The company and the city are moving forward with preparations. Zeoli said he has attended several meetings with Titan employees and the U.S. Coast Guard to discuss security issues.

Also, Capt. Michael Perez, director of the port, said he is looking into hiring 12 additional security guards.

Titan has hired 18 senior staff members, including a marketing director. In all, they plan to hire about 350 people.

Paula Patterson, Titan's director of human resources, said she has just started accepting resumes for crew positions. She is also planning to schedule a job fair for potential employees.

While Titan officials won't disclose how many passengers they need to break even, other similarly sized ventures have attracted more than a million visitors per year.

Cape Canaveral is home to two gambling cruise ships: Sterling Casino Line's Ambassador II and Sun Cruz Casino's Sun Cruz XII.

The 440-foot Ambassador attracted 1.5-million passengers in fiscal year 2003, up slightly from 2002 with 1.4-million.

The Sun Cruz XII, which is 308 feet, had 429,018 visitors in fiscal year 2003. There were 407,452 passengers in 2002.

But this doesn't necessarily translate into a financial windfall for the host city, said Andrea Bowers, Cape Canaveral's city treasurer.

Unlike St. Petersburg, Cape Canaveral has a port authority, so the money generated by the cruise ships goes to the authority, not the local government, Bowers said.

Also, having a local port brings an increase in traffic and crime for the surrounding localities.

"Any time you're next to a port, you're going to have off-setting problems that come from that," Bowers said. "That's just a part of it."

The cruise ships may have contributed to an increase in local property values, Bowers added. But there's no way to tell for certain whether there is a link.

"Waterfront property is at a premium anyway," Bowers said. "There's not much of it left."

_ Carrie Johnson can be reached at 892-2273 or cjohnsonsptimes.com.

TITAN'S DELAYS

DECEMBER 2002: Mayor Rick Baker announces a deal with Titan Cruise Lines to bring a gambling ship to the Port of St. Petersburg.

MARCH 2003: Twice-daily cruises are scheduled to begin; instead, the company struggles financially and cannot prove ownership of the ship.

JULY 2003: Titan's new owners pay the city almost $400,000 and sign a lease for space at the port. The ship is expected to arrive in February 2004, with cruises beginning in late March 2004.

JANUARY: Due to delays caused by security concerns, Titan's owners say cruises won't start until June.

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