Glimmer of Hope
Riverboat fanatics anxiously await pending sale of Delta Queen
They hope to see the vessel once again sailing
on the Ohio River, visiting Madison
(April 2014) – Kathie Petkovic discovered Madison, Ind., in the 1990s while sailing the Ohio River with her parents aboard the Delta Queen riverboat. Then a resident of Florida, she vowed to someday relocate to Madison. After 40 more cruises aboard various riverboats on the Ohio River, she did just that.
Petkovic returned to Madison in 2007 and bought and renovated the former President Madison Motel that overlooks the riverfront. She renamed it Riverboat Inn. The name reflects her love for riverboats. She even adorned the lobby with all sorts of riverboat memorabilia, complete with authentic steamboat relics and photographs of riverboat captains who have stayed at her motel.
“I’ve had four riverboat captains stay here,” Petkovic says proudly.
A wooden plank from the Delta Queen’s paddlewheel hangs on the wall of the motel’s back porch. It was given to her four years ago when it broke off the boat during a stop downriver and had to be replaced. A new piece was installed, and the boat’s engineer at the time, knowing Petkovic’s love of riverboats, said he knew just the place for it – Riverboat Inn. He saved it for her and delivered it to the motel when the boat arrived in Madison a few days later.
Photo by Don Ward
The 87-year-old Delta Queen has been serving as a floating hotel on the banks of the Tennessee River in downtown Chattanooga, Tenn., since 2009, a year after the Congressional exemption expired that allowed her to sail with overnight passengers on America’s inland waterways. An investor group is nearing a deal to purchase the vessel with hopes of putting her back into service on the Ohio River. But it will take a vote from the U.S. Senate to restore the exemption. The bill is currently stalled in a Senate committee.
Petkovic also has a Delta Queen life raft ring hanging on the wall of the motel lobby, and she displays a small bell that came from the boat’s upper deck bar. “I don’t remember how I came up on that bell,” she says, sheepishly.
In 2009, Petkovic even tried to get a group of investors together to buy the riverboat and bring her to Madison. “We wanted to park it out here on the riverfront and use it for parties and weddings and special events,” she said. “It would have been fitting to have such a unique piece of history docked in one of the most historic towns in America.”
After the attempt to buy the boat failed, Petkovic then focused her attention and money on buying dozens of rental properties throughout the downtown and often sponsors local tourism events. “I love Madison,” she says.
Bob Przewlocki, who grew up in Chicago, says he had never seen a riverboat or even known they existed until he came to Madison. But in 2007, soon after buying the former Meese building – the largest structure on Madison’s riverfront – he saw the Delta Queen coming down the Ohio River, its steam calliope playing loudly. “I thought that was really cool!” said Przewlocki, who resides in Wayne, Ill.
Photo by Don Ward
Florida native Kathie Petkovic discovered Madison, Ind., during her many cruises aboard riverboats on the Ohio River. She now owns and operates Riverboat Inn there and displays many riverboat relics and memorabilia, including this bell from the Delta Queen’s upper bar.
Two years later, in February 2009, he and his brother traveled to New Orleans to try and purchase the decommissioned Mississippi Queen to prevent its demolition at a shipyard there. He wanted to bring the boat to Madison and dock it in front of his property, which he someday hopes to develop into a hotel complex. He believed the boat would have made a great local attraction, complete with dining, a bar and live entertainment.
But Przewlocki’s attempt to buy the boat failed, and the Mississippi Queen was eventually sold in 2010 to a Chinese company that demolished the boat and hauled it back to China in pieces.
Petkovic and Przewlocki are only two of hundreds of riverboat fanatics nationwide who love to see these colorful, historic vessels in all their opulence as they sail up and down America’s waterways. They have watched with interest recent developments concerning the fate of yet another historic riverboat – the Delta Queen.
Photo by Don Ward
Prospective buyer Cornel Martin estimates it would
take up to $5 million
to upgrade the Delta Queen’s paddlewheel, boiler, generator
and electrical panels before she could
cruise with overnight guests again.
The boat, which used to be a regular visitor to Madison’s riverbank, was decommissioned from cruising in 2008 when an exemption to a U.S. Coast Guard rule expired that had allowed it to ply U.S. inland waterways. The restriction, known as the 1960 Safety of Lives at Sea Act, required certain fire-retardant materials for vessels with wooden superstructures carrying more than 50 people overnight and operating within the boundary line of the United States’ inland waterways. Without the exemption the Delta Queen is subject to this restriction and is not allowed to cruise, even though as a riverboat, it has never been more than a mile from shore.
After the exemption expired, the boat in 2009 was taken to Chattanooga, Tenn., where it has since operated as a stationary hotel on the banks of the Tennessee River. The boat’s owner at the time, Ambassadors International, filed for bankruptcy in 2011, and Colorado-based Xanterra Parks & Resorts Inc., bought all of Ambassadors International’s assets for $39 million, including the Delta Queen. Xanterra is a large holding company owned by billionaire Philip Anschutz. Randy and Leah Ann Ingram manage the 88-cabin, 176-passenger boat for Xanterra.
In 2013, the National Trust for Historic Preservation named the 87-year-old riverboat a National Treasure. A ceremony was held in Chattanooga to celebrate the designation.
The Ingrams last year joined a venture capital group that is negotiating to buy the boat from Xanterra. The investor group, led by former Delta Queen Steamboat Co. executive Cornel Martin of Thibodaux, La., includes Phillip Johnson, a former Delta Queen engineer, and some other “silent partners,” Martin said. They are simultaneously lobbying a Senate committee to pass legislation that would allow the Delta Queen to once again sail on America’s waterways with overnight guests. Earlier published reports say Martin’s group estimates it will take $7 million to buy and renovate the vessel for overnight cruising. They hope to obtain economic development funds, which would be repaid by the investors.
The recent effort to restore the Delta Queen to overnight cruising has progressed. Last September, a vote on House Bill 1961 in the House of Representatives passed overwhelming 281-89 to exempt the boat. The bill then advanced to the Senate, where it has been stalled in committee.
“It is just a matter of timing now for both the sale and the exemption to come through.”
– Cornel Martin, lead investor trying to buy the Delta Queen
“Clearly, we are at a critical point. It is just a matter of timing now for both the sale and the exemption to come through,” said Martin, 54, during a March 27 telephone interview. Martin successfully lobbied to get the boat’s previous exemption in 2004. But he was not involved with the boat when that exemption expired in 2008.
So after yet another purchase, the Delta Queen was taken to Chattanooga to bide its time as a floating hotel.
During this time, a “Save the Delta Queen” group that formed in 2007 is still actively trying to get the riverboat back to cruising. Martin’s push has garnered the support of legislators in several states where the boat would possibly operate – Illinois, Pennsylvania, Louisiana and Arkansas.
An opposing investor group in California was also trying to purchase the boat last year. That group apparently wanted to take the boat to California, where it first sailed on the Sacramento River between San Francisco and Sacramento from the late 1920s until 1940. The riverboat has passed through several owners over the years since its initial launch in 1927.
Martin said that opposing investor group has since moved on and is no longer interested. Instead, he says he is very close to a deal with Xanterra, and he is hoping the timing of the Congressional exemption will work out.
“We are considered to be in first position (to buy the boat),” Martin said. He said two cities – Cincinnati and St. Louis – are “very eager to be the next homeport for the Delta Queen. And St. Louis is pushing hard to put her under the Arch.”
But many in the Ohio Valley are hoping it goes to Cincinnati, where the boat was homeported and locally owned from 1946-1985.
Louisville to hold
(April 2014) – Madison, Ind., residents are familiar with the beauty and sound of steamboats, after seeing and hearing them for decades during their stops at the river town on the Ohio River. But if you want a closer look at steamboats, make plans to attend the Centennial Festival of Riverboats being planned Oct. 11-14 in Louisville, Ky. The event will feature music, food, bourbon, fireworks and nine steamboats during this weeklong event to commemorate the history of steamboats on the Ohio River.
The event also will celebrate the Belle of Louisville’s 100th birthday. The Belle is the oldest operating Mississippi River-style steamboat in the world. Learn more about the festival at: www.FestivalofRiverboats.com.
In Madison, meanwhile, the American Queen (the largest steamboat ever built) and Queen of the Mississippi steamboats will make stops this summer, although visitors are not allowed to board the boats during these stops.
The American Queen will visit from 8 a.m. – 1 p.m. on June 20 and June 23, and Sept. 5. The Queen of the Mississippi will stop from 10 p.m. July 26 to noon on July 27.
“It needs to go to Cincinnati, so we can benefit from it here in Madison,” said Linda Lytle, who serves as the town’s tourism director. “We get calls all the time about the riverboats. Now we only have two of them making stops here this summer.”
The American Queen and the Queen of the Mississippi have scheduled brief stops in Madison in June, July and August. Although locals and visitors are not allowed to board the vessels, they enjoy going down to the riverbank to watch them and hear the calliope play.
“We seem to get more people coming from out of town to see the riverboats than the residents here,” Lytle said. “They are a great tourism draw, and the people on the boats come into town to shop and eat while they are here.”
Petkovic makes sure of that. At her own expense, she sends her employees down to the riverfront on golf carts to carry riverboat passengers up to Main Street to shop and eat. The Madison Trolley also lends a hand by carrying the guests around town during their visit.
The drama surrounding the fate of the Delta Queen has been unfolding for the past several months – ever since Chattanooga’s new mayor, Andy Berke, last summer attempted to evict the boat for lack of rent payment to the city. In September, the mayor granted a six-month extension, which was set to expire March 31. Then the bitterly cold winter and ice storms froze water pipes, damaged the sprinkler system and caused additional damage to the boat. It has been closed since mid-February for repairs, according to Leah Ann Ingram.
“Everything has been repaired, and she’s ready to go. We are just waiting for our final inspections before we can re-open,” she said by telephone on March 26.
As the end of Mayor Berke’s six-month extension drew near in March, meanwhile, Berke gave the group 90 days to complete the sale of the boat to Martin and Ingram’s investor group. “We basically have until the end of June,” Ingram said. “I think we are very close to a deal.”
Martin said the damages to the boat were all internal, adding, “There are no real visible damage in the public quarters. It’s all internal.’
Should the sale go through and the exemption granted, Martin’s group would immediately take the Delta Queen to a shipyard in the Gulf region, where an estimated $5 million in upgrades would be needed to the boiler, generator, electrical panels, HVAC system and paddlewheel to get her sail-worthy again, he said. The overhaul would take at least six months, he said, giving his group plenty of time to decide which city would win out as the new homeport.
Even as a floating hotel, the Delta Queen provides visitors with an impressive experience. Dee Comstock and Steve Holden of Madison stayed overnight on the Delta Queen in January 2010 on their way home from Florida. They had never been aboard a riverboat and were intrigued, she said.
“It was off season, and there were only about 20 people on board, and the dining room was closed. So we sat at the bar and ate snacks and enjoyed hanging out. It was a neat experience, especially for someone who couldn’t afford to buy a cruise on a riverboat. It is amazing just to walk around the boat in all of its splendor. It is a real national treasure.”
Comstock and Holden, who own and operate Iron Gate Inn bed and breakfast on Madison’s Main Street, say they often go down to Madison’s riverfront when a riverboat comes in, just to see the majestic vessels and listen to the calliope.
“They are beautiful boats,” Comstock said. “It’s too bad the Delta Queen can’t be put back into service and travel back to Madison. It would really help our tourism and local economy.”
Madison resident Brad Miller joined the “Save the Delta Queen” group several years ago out if his personal interest in seeing the boat sail the waterways once again. While he would certainly like to see the exemption approved and the boat back on the Ohio River, he goes one step farther: “I asked the question, ‘Why not bring her to Madison?’ with Madison’s rich history of steamboat building and our need for economic prosperity. Having the Delta Queen on our riverfront would create an economic boom for downtown Madison. I think it could be done.”
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