Chattanooga Mayor Andy Berke seeks to give Delta Queen the boot

Chattanooga Mayor Andy Berke seeks to give Delta Queen the boot

September 14th, 2013 by Joan Garrett McClane in Local Regional News

POLL: Should the Delta Queen be allowed to stay?

ABOUT THE DELTA QUEEN

Location: Off Coolidge Park, Chattanooga

Built: 1927

Rooms: 88

Floors: 4

Why can't it move? The 1966 Safety Law of the Sea forbids any vessel from carrying more than 50 overnight passengers if it is made primarily of wood. The ship lost its exemption to this law in 2008 amid an apparent dispute with the Seafarer's International Union and its supporters in Congress.

What is about to change: Bills with more than 20 co-sponsors from both sides of the aisle in both houses of Congress would renew the boat's exemption to the Safety Law of the Sea, which was previously modified by the Coast Guard to include the Delta Queen.

Document: Temporary Berthing Agreement

The Delta Queen, a steamer built between 1924 and 1926, sits on the Tennessee River on Friday in downtown Chattanooga. Its doors opened in February of 2009 in Chattanooga as a hotel, but documents show that the riverboat has until Sept. 30 to ship out.

Photo by Maura Friedman/Times Free Press.

Other cities want it. The National Trust is on the verge of naming it a National Treasure.

Yet Mayor Andy Berke wants the Delta Queen out of downtown Chattanooga by Sept. 30.

The historic and iconic riverboat that arrived in Chattanooga to much fanfare in 2009 is being unceremoniously evicted, according to records from Berke's office.

"The city has properly ordered that the vessel be removed," states a Sept. 10 temporary berthing agreement signed by City Attorney Wade Hinton.

The document shows that the mayor's office pushed for the boat to leave North Shore Landing as early as Aug. 15, but gave the owners an extension to Sept. 30. For each day the boat sits past then, the city plans to charge $100 over and above its rent. And if the boat doesn't leave, the berthing agreement states that the city will move it.

The eviction seems strangely timed, a local resident said.

"This is a real disappointment," said Stephen Holmes, a North Shore resident who is on the board of the Tennessee Hospitality Association. "It is a little bit of history right here on our own shore. I love to go sit out on that deck and watch the river float to the sea."

Next week Congress is expected to vote on a special exemption that would allow the Delta Queen to travel again on water.

The 1966 Safety at Sea Act forbids any vessel made primarily of wood from carrying more than 50 overnight passengers.

The American Queen, a more modern steamboat built in 1995, will arrive Sept. 20 for one of its usual stops, and join with the National Trust to name the Delta Queen a National Treasure the next day, said the National Trust and Ann and Larry Ingram, who manage the Delta Queen for Colorado-based Xanterra Parks & Resorts.

The boat is beloved by many for its past as a WWII troop ship, its ghost stories and its decades of excursions on the Mississippi River. It's still an operating hotel and, while it shut down its restaurant in July, its bar is a favorite spot for some.

But Berke's spokeswoman, Lacie Stone, said moving the Delta Queen is part of his effort to clean up the downtown shoreline.

"We are proud of our spectacular waterfront and are working to improve it for citizens and visitors alike," Stone said. "We have received complaints from citizens that the vessel detracts from the riverfront by blocking the beautiful view from Coolidge Park toward downtown. We wish the Delta Queen well and will continue to work with its owners during this time of transition."

Hamilton County Mayor Jim Coppinger said Berke told him he sees the riverboat as "an obstruction."

"There was a huge investment made in Coolidge Park," Coppinger said. "The appearance of the riverfront is what Mayor Berke is trying to accomplish."

In July, Berke's office sent a letter to the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers calling a dilapidated barge moored across from the Tennessee Aquarium "unacceptable" and asking federal regulators to help get it removed.

Chattanooga businessman Allen Casey floated the barge to the city's North Shore from Pittsburgh in 2009 with the intention of putting in a New Orleans-style restaurant, a steakhouse and a bar. In June, Corps officials gave Casey 90 days to bring the barge into compliance, but it's still in place, clearly visible from the Market Street Bridge.

Other suitors

Many locals have campaigned to buy the floating hotel, equip it for river travel and make Chattanooga its permanent home port.

Leah Ann Ingram said the couple has raised millions toward this effort and can pay the asking price.

She said the Delta Queen generates $200,000 to $300,000 a year in taxes for the city, including $100,000 in property taxes alone.

If Congress goes along and Chattanooga becomes the traveling Queen's home port, the economic impact for Chattanooga would be $10 million over the next decade, records with the mayor's office show. More than 250 local people would be employed, said Ingram.

In Memphis, the home port of the American Queen, Holmes said steamboat tourism brings that city $25 million per year. Tickets for a week on the river run $4,000 per person.

The Delta Queen was fabricated in Scotland between 1924 and 1927 and is one of the last of the Western River Steamboats, It's the only overnight paddle-wheeled steamboat operating on inland waterways, according to the National Trust.

Its interiors are fairly well kept. Tiffany-style stained glass, hardwood paneling, brass fittings and a grand staircase with a crystal chandelier have drawn history buffs from all over the world to Chattanooga.

But Holmes said the Queen needs an exterior face-lift. Fresh paint would do wonders, he said. The gangway to the shore is rusty. Sometimes river debris gathers around the boat and a pungent, fishy smell wafts.

Still, many cities covet the old boat. Cincinnati, which was the boat's home for 40 years, is vying for it, along with Louisville and other port cities.

Cincinnati lawmakers see it as a moneymaker for the city and hope Congress will approve it to paddle home.

"Chattanooga could have one of three [river]boats you can spend the night on in the whole country," said Holmes. "I can't think it would be an eyesore."

Contact staff writer Joan McClane at jmcclane@timesfreepress.com or 423-757-6601.