published Monday, May 21st, 2012

Delta Queen riverboat will stay in Chattanooga through summer

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A hotelier looking to buy and move the Delta Queen riverboat hotel down to Florida will have to wait until at least the end of the summer.

Unless the New Smyrna Beach, Fla., City Council approves a land lease, Wayne Heller may not even go through with the purchase. Heller signed a letter of intent to buy the Delta Queen, move it and reopen it in New Smyrna Beach last month.

The council decided that before signing an agreement with Heller the land should be put out for bids, a process that will take far longer than Heller’s letter of intent to buy is good for.

New Smyrna Beach Mayor Adam Barringer said the city won’t make a decision until sometime in August at the earliest, and the project has several hurdles it would need to clear before getting serious consideration.

The Coast Guard, Army Corps of Engineers, Department of Environmental Protection and other agencies need to OK the plan to move the 85-year-old steamboat before it could happen. Until then, the New Smyrna Beach Commission will have difficulty approving the floating hotel.

“That’s the consensus among the entire commission,” Barringer said. “There’s a lot of agencies that would have to give this the thumbs-up prior to the city saying we can move forward.”

The Delta Queen has had several would-be buyers pull out for one reason or another since the boat was docked at Chattanooga in 2009. Operator Leah Ann Ingram said the boat will stay on the market, but she hopes it can find a permanent home in Chattanooga.

“It’s great for the city,” she said. “Occupancy’s doing really well. On the weekends we’re close to being full.”

Occupancy rates have seen a “large increase this year,” Ingram said, a boost she attributes to extensive marketing.

She expects occupancy to continue to rise into the summer as the Delta Queen launches promotions around its 85th anniversary.

Bob Doak, president and chief executive officer of the Chattanooga Convention and Visitors Bureau, said the boat is a great tourist attraction for the city.

“It animates our waterfront,” he said. “It’s unique, and to be competitive, you’ve got to differentiate yourself from your competitors. This adds to our unique mix as a city.”

Contact Carey O’Neil at coneil@timesfreepress.com or 423-757-6525. Follow him at twitter.com/careyoneil.

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