published Saturday, April 7th, 2012

Florida hotelier eyes Chattanooga's historic Delta Queen

The Delta Queen could be moving to warmer waters in Florida.
The Delta Queen could be moving to warmer waters in Florida.
Photo by Dan Henry.
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A Florida hotelier may purchase the historic Delta Queen paddlewheeler and move it south, but for now, the majestic steamboat will remain in Chattanooga.

Wayne Heller is the latest in a string of potential buyers who have offered to buy the 85-year-old steamboat. He has yet to seal the deal on the boat, which came to Chattanooga and went up for sale in 2009.

Heller and his wife have signed a letter of intent with a 30- to 45-day window to buy the Delta Queen and take it to New Smyrna Beach, Fla. Last week, Heller asked the New Smyrna Beach City Council to sell or lease him land where he can dock the boat hotel.

Leah Ann Ingram, who operates the Delta Queen with her husband, Randy, said Heller isn’t the first person who has wanted to buy the boat.

“We’ve had seven letters of intent to purchase, and nothing’s happened,” she said. “That’s not to say this guy won’t get it. But there isn’t even a purchase agreement. The boat has been for sale for three years, and it hasn’t gone anywhere yet.”

But before the 285-foot-long boat could leave Coolidge Park for warmer waters, the New Smyrna Beach City Council must vote on whether to lease the Hellers the city land needed for the space. New Smyrna Beach City Councilman Jim Hathaway said that decision probably won’t be made for at least 60 days.

“They do not want to act too hastily on this because it would be a huge impact to the city,” City Clerk Johnny Bledsoe said. “They’re wanting to take their time and see what’s going to happen.”

Ingram wants the boat stay in Chattanooga and said plans are in the works to keep the Coolidge Park icon where it now floats.

“The Delta Queen has definitely become a part of Chattanooga’s riverfront and Chattanooga’s history,” she said. “It would be a grave loss to lose the Delta Queen.”

The Delta Queen’s status as a national historic landmark could block the sale. The Tennessee River’s fresh water is easy on the boat’s wooden hull, Ingram said, but the salt water of New Smyrna Beach could cause damage.

“It’s right to be concerned about that,” said John Hildreth, an area vice president with the National Trust for Historic Preservation. “We would certainly monitor the situation. We are concerned about it.”

The steamboat brought hotel passengers through Chattanooga for years. It came to stay at Coolidge Park in 2009 after government regulators deemed it unsafe, and it has been up for sale ever since.

The company that owned the boat in 2009 entered bankruptcy in 2011. The Delta Queen was taken over by the parks and resorts management company Xanterra, which has tried to sell it ever since.

Hildreth said that, whether the Delta Queen is sold, moved or kept where it is, the steamboat needs to be cared for and protected.

“It’s a remarkable historic artifact,” he said. “It’s really the last one of its kind.”

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