CINCINNATI - Ohioans in Congress hope proposed legislation allowing the Delta Queen steamboat to carry passengers again on overnight trips will help bring the historic vessel back to the Ohio River and Cincinnati.
That could mean Chattanooga could lose the Queen, now tied up at Coolidge Park and operating as a floating hotel.
But that's not her destiny, said Cornel Martin, president and CEO of Delta Queen Steamboat Co., which is trying to buy the vessel. He was aboard in Chattanooga on Sunday night.
"I'm trying to get her operating again as a cruise vessel. We'd like to see her cruising again," Martin said. He said he's been working with an investment group since fall trying to stave off a California competitor who wants to take the boat out West.
"We still have a long way to go," Martin said.
The Ohio lawmakers recently introduced bills in the Senate and House of Representatives to eliminate a restriction that has kept the Delta Queen, a National Historic Landmark, docked the past few years.
The legislation would grant the 86-year-old wooden paddlewheel steamboat that operated for decades out of Cincinnati a 15-year exemption from the Safety at Sea law. The federal law passed in 1966 prohibits boats of a certain size with a wooden superstructure from carrying 50 passengers or more on overnight trips on America's rivers. The Delta Queen received numerous exemptions until the last one expired in 2008 and Congress failed to renew it.
Lawmakers and others say eliminating that hurdle could pave the way for the Delta Queen's return to the Ohio River, boosting the economy in Cincinnati and other Ohio River towns. An investment team trying to buy the vessel from Xanterra Parks & Resorts says Cincinnati is a strong contender for the homeport if the team's bid and the legislation are successful.
Martin heads the team of investors seeking to buy the vessel.
"We don't want her lost to the Ohio and Mississippi rivers forever," he said. "We think it's important to preserve this piece of history and allow future generations to continue to enjoy America's rivers from the Delta Queen."
Tom Meserau, a spokesman for Xanterra, based in suburban Denver, said the company doesn't comment on offers it "may or may not have received" and doesn't confirm or deny whether properties are for sale.
But Martin, of the New Orleans area, said the team hopes to hear back within a few weeks on its bid.
Cincinnati was the Delta Queen's homeport from 1946 to 1985 when it moved to the Port of New Orleans, where it operated until 2008. The steamboat went into service in 1927 carrying overnight passengers between Sacramento and San Francisco and was used as a U.S. Navy transport ship in World War II before being sold as war surplus to a Cincinnati-based company, Martin said.
Democratic U.S. Sen. Sherrod Brown, who sponsored the Senate bill, said in a written statement that the steamboat's legacy is "rooted in Cincinnati and the city should play a role in her future." Republican U.S. Sen. Rob Portman, another sponsor, said returning the Delta Queen to Cincinnati would boost jobs and tourism along the Ohio River "at no cost to the taxpayer."
U.S. Rep. Steve Chabot, a Republican from Cincinnati sponsoring the House bill, said the legislation is an important step to bringing the Delta Queen "back to Cincinnati where she belongs."
Martin said it will take about $10 million to buy and restore the Delta Queen to service. The needed safety improvements, including replacing the boilers, would be made.
The team also is considering Louisville, Ky., and Chattanooga for the home port, but "the enthusiasm from Cincinnati has been overwhelming," Martin said.
The Associated Press and staff writer Lindsay Burkholder contributed to this report.