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Sealing the deal

Mississippi Queen sale nearly complete

Challenges not insurmountable
to dock it in Madison, officials say

 

 

(February 2009)

Read previous Don Ward columns!
Don Ward

Terms are being finalized between River Mill Resort developer Bob Przewlocki and Ambassador’s International Inc. in the purchase of the Mississippi Queen. Przewlocki wants to bring the steamboat to Madison, where he would permanently dock it in front of his development at the former Meese building on Vaughn Drive.
RoundAbout first reported on the deal in the January edition. Since that time, progress has been made toward finalizing the sale, according to Przewlocki and his business partner and on-site property manager David Landau. The developers plan to operate the vessel as a floating hotel, complete with two restaurants and five bars. The steamboat also features a banquet facility, theater, swimming pool and spa.
They are near to signing an agreement with Jones Lang Lasalle, an international financial and professional services firm that specializes in real estate services and investment management. The company also has a hotel management division.
A JLL representative traveled to Madison in mid-January to meet with the developers and tour the River Mill Resort project as part of the ongoing negotiations. Should a deal be struck, JLL would manage all aspects of the resort and the Mississippi Queen, Landau said. That would include negotiating and financing the purchase of the Queen, as well as attracting and managing a hotel chain and restaurateurs to operate inside the development and on board the boat.

Delta Queen

Photo provided

The Mississippi Queen would provide
the community with hotel rooms,
restaurants and entertainment space.

“We are very excited about having JLL become a part of this project because it will elevate us to a higher level and move the project along more quickly,” Landau said. He added that JLL’s involvement should help re-assure local residents who have expressed doubts about the project coming to fruition.
Landau cited the January announcement of the Delta Queen going to Chattanooga, Tenn., to operate there as a floating boutique hotel as an example that the Madison venture with the Mississippi Queen is do-able. A private businessman has chartered the Delta Queen while its owner, Ambassadors International Inc., tries to find a buyer. The boat will be moored at a city dock, where it will offer live music and group tours in addition to hotel rooms.
“It just goes to show what can happen when you think outside the box and ignore all the negativity that comes when you try to do something big like this,” Landau said. “We are staying focused on the project, despite the challenges.”
They had initially hoped to have the boat on the riverfront in time for the city’s Bicentennial celebration in June. The Mississippi Queen, the world’s second largest steamboat behind the American Queen, was built in 1976 for the American Bicentennial. Landau says that while the boat may indeed arrive in time for this summer’s festivities, it is unlikely to be open as a hotel or restaurant by then.
Others agree.
“There are a lot of project milestones that need to be met,” said Corey Murphy, executive director of the Economic Development Partners of Jefferson County. “For example, working with the Army Corps of Engineers to obtain the necessary permits. But these milestones shouldn’t be a road block; it’s just a process that anyone would have to go through when you are dealing with the river. I prefer to look on the positive side of things.”
The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers manages the river system with strict guidelines. Permits would have to be applied and obtained to dock the boat permanently on the river and to build a platform for guests to enter the boat, officials said.
Other permitting would likely have to be completed with other state and federal environmental agencies, such as the Indiana Department of Environmental Management, the Indiana Department of Natural Resources and Kentucky Department of Fish and Wildlife, and perhaps even the U.S. Coast Guard.
“It’s a long tedious process but it can be done,” said Steve Huffman, who went down that road in 2000 when obtaining the necessary permits to dock his towboat, the Barbara H, formerly the Donald B., near his home in nearby Lamb, Ind. It took him eight months of permitting, 12 tons of concrete, a 5,000-pound anchor and a 6,000-pound pipe to moor the Barbara H. “You would have to multiply that by five or six for the MQ,” he said.
The Barbara H is only 100x19 feet in size, compared to the Mississippi Queen, which measures 382x68 feet. The towboat can house only a few people and was built in 1923 for Standard Oil Co. to move barges. Huffman and his wife, Barbara, have used it as an attraction for school groups and to participate in regional river festivals in Cincinnati, Frankfort, Ky., Warsaw, Ky. and Vevay, Ind. They have been invited to take part in the upcoming Madison Bicentennial in June.
Huffman isn’t optimistic, but he is hopeful that Przewlocki can pull off a similar effort to save the Mississippi Queen. “It would take a substantial mooring cell to hold a boat that size. And the Army Corps of Engineers will have a stack of paperwork for them to work through.”
Huffman said the Mississippi Queen also has been gutted and essentially mothballed for the past two years. The owners at one point had started to renovate the boat but stopped in midstream. “It would take $1 million to finish that renovation alone,” Huffman said.
The towboat captain said that despite the challenges, he hopes Przewlocki succeeds because “it would save the boat.”
Meanwhile, Przewlocki and Landau have been talking with Murphy and Madison Mayor Tim Armstrong about the infrastructure needs to accommodate parking and traffic flow to and from the riverfront. They have discussed building a parking garage on city owned land near the bridge. But Murphy said those talks are preliminary in nature.
“I’d call it due diligence, just to try and determine the needs should they succeed in bringing in the boat,” Murphy said. “Nothing has been promised; there have been no agreements. We are simply working on the conceptual stage. But I’m excited about the possibility and what Bob and David are doing down at the riverfront.”
Armstrong, meanwhile, called the effort ambitious but that “we need to have a vision; we need to stay positive. What they are doing down on the river could have a major impact on the area. I wish them luck, and the city has pledged to help in any way it can.”
Linda Lytle, executive director of the Madison Area Convention and Visitors Bureau, said, “I’m thrilled about it, and I hope they don’t hit any snags in getting the boat here. It would be a great asset for Madison.”
The 208 hotel rooms on board the Queen would contribute to the county’s hotel tax system, thereby boosting the tourism budget via innkeepers tax revenue. The steamboat also has space that accommodated 157 crew members. In addition to more hotel rooms, Lytle said, the town would benefit from “the bonus of having space on board the boat for meetings and events, so it ought to be a big plus for us.”
Kathie Petkovic, who moved to Madison in 2007 to manage the Riverboat Inn, is a veteran of steamboat travel on the Ohio River. She and her parents have taken dozens of cruises aboard all three Queens. Her second trip to Madison was aboard the Mississippi Queen. She calls the effort to bring the boat to Madison “totally fantastic.”
“It would be great to have a paddlewheeler docked in Madison year-round,” said the former Florida Realtor. “Some people have said it would bring too many hotel rooms and restaurants in Madison, but I think it would bring Madison to life. I hope they can do it.”

• Don Ward is the editor, publisher and owner of RoundAbout. Call him at (812) 273-2259 or email him at: Don@RoundAboutMadison.com.

 

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