Chattanooga officials and federal regulators worry as riverfront barge sinks

Chattanooga officials and federal regulators worry as riverfront barge sinks

December 10th, 2011 by Mike Pare in Business Around the Region

A vacant restaurant barge lies partially submerged Tuesday while docked on the north shore of the Tennessee River along Manufacturers Road near downtown Chattanooga.

Photo by John Rawlston/Times Free Press.

A downtown Chattanooga riverfront barge that's nearly half-submerged on the shoreline across from Ross's Landing has drawn the ire of federal regulators and the worry of city officials.

The barge's owner, who's planning restaurants and a bar on a structure that sits atop it, said it needs to be refloated within 30 days or face fines from the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers.

Allen Casey of River City Resort Inc., also owner of the vacant tract of waterfront land to which the barge is moored, said he plans to start pumping out water when the river level subsides.

"As soon as the water goes down, we can start pumping," the Chattanooga developer said.

Lee Roberts of the corps said the barge must meet specific conditions under its permit that the federal agency granted years ago.

"When a permittee fails to comply with the terms of the permit, the issue becomes an enforcement issue," he said. "In this instance, the corps suspects the barge to be out of compliance."

Roberts said the corps conducted a site inspection Monday. He declined to comment further, citing the investigation.

"STATE OF LIMBO"

Larry Zehnder, the city's parks and recreation administrator, said people have complained about the barge's appearance.

"It's beginning to look pretty trashy," he said.

Zehnder said he'd like something done with the barge and the structure or it be removed.

"A state of limbo is not good," he said, adding he doesn't believe the city has any jurisdiction over the issue.

Bob Doak, CEO of the Chattanooga Area Convention and Visitors Bureau, said the current state of the barge is "not a pleasant view."

"If he does get it operational, it will be great asset, but until then it's a liability in our view," he said. "I hope the matter can be resolved quickly."

Casey said he brought the barge down from Pittsburgh about two years ago with the intention of putting in a New Orleans-style restaurant, a steakhouse and a bar. He said the existing structure had held four bars at one time.

Several weeks ago, something caused the barge to shift to one side and water started pouring in while the river level rose, Casey said.

CASEY PROJECT

Casey, who originally developed the Chattanooga Choo Choo into a top tourism attraction over three decades ago, said the barge project is part of larger plans to develop the property. He said he's awaiting approval for financing for the full project, which he declined to talk about publicly.

In 2004, he announced plans for a 98-room AmeriSuites on the 12-acre tract along with 60 condominiums and a restaurant, but nothing was built. He later sold about 5 acres of the property.

Doak said people enjoy dining on the water and the floating restaurant could prove popular.

"It will be a great addition," he said.

The Corps permitted a barge facility in 1999.

"Our understanding is another barge was located there originally after the permit was issued," said Brad Bishop, chief of the Corps' Western regulatory section, Nashville district. The corps is determining if the barge size is within its permit.