Mayor Andy Berke's office, riverboat operators fight over Delta Queen rent

Mayor Andy Berke's office, riverboat operators fight over Delta Queen rent

September 17th, 2013 by Joan Garrett McClane in Local Regional News

POLL: Should the Delta Queen be allowed to stay?

The Delta Queen riverboat is docked on the north shore of the Tennessee River near Coolidge Park in Chattanooga.

Photo by Doug Strickland/Times Free Press.

Document: Temporary Berthing Agreement

A city document shows that the Delta Queen owes more than $11,000 in back rent, but managers of the riverboat say city officials are lying and accuse the city of shoddy accounting.

City officials insist their records are "100 percent accurate."

The battle of words began Monday, just two days after a Times Free Press story revealed that Mayor Andy Berke had ordered the 86-year-old, national historic landmark out of downtown Chattanooga by Sept. 30.

Lea Ann Ingram, president of Delta Queen LLC, said the debts they were told about have been paid off, and she sent a stern email to the city requesting a retraction.

"We ... advised you, both in person and in writing ... on five separate occasions that the City's figures were in error," Ingram wrote to the city on Monday. Further, she said, Berke spokeswoman Lacie Stone's statements to the media that the Delta Queen was past due on its rent had hurt their image.

"I cannot begin to calculate the damage Ms. Stone's statement has done to my husband's and my reputation, not to mention the damage it has done to the two other local businesses we own and operate," Ingram wrote.

Travis McDonough, the mayor's chief of staff, told a reporter that the city might consider letting the Delta Queen stay if certain conditions are met. Yet Ingram said no one from the mayor's office had told her that and that no one replied to her email on Monday.

Less than two weeks remain before the boat's eviction date.

As claims and counterclaims unfolded Monday, both sides provided documents and receipts to back up their position.

In December 2012, the city of Chattanooga received $3,833 for past due rent that dated to the fall of 2010, according to a receipt provided by Ingram that was stamped "received" by the city.

That rent had been left unpaid by the boat's previous manager, Harry Phillips, who was instrumental in bringing the steamboat to Chattanooga but later declared bankruptcy.

A few months earlier the city received a check for $8,500 for unpaid fees from January 2011 to July 2012, a receipt provided by Ingram shows. The city included the payments in its accounting but said the Delta Queen is still in arrears.

"We received the statements from the operators of the Delta Queen this morning and have checked their numbers with ours," McDonough said in a statement. "We feel very confident that they owe us approximately $10,000."

As a result, McDonough said there are concerns that the boat's management will not be able to pay future obligations.

"We know that for the boat to stay docked at its current location, it would require over $100,000 of investment to establish a permanent utility connection," he wrote in his statement.

McDonough also noted that the boat recently laid off its kitchen staff. Ingram said that is because they decided to no longer have a restaurant onboard.

McDonough said the city would consider being a home port to the Delta Queen if the boat is purchased from Xanterra Parks and Resorts. The company has been trying to sell the boat since it came to Chattanooga to dock. Xanterra has not accepted an offer from the Ingrams, even though they say they have raised nearly the full $5 million asking price through a nonprofit founded to save the boat.

"The City has every intention of working with the new owner of the vessel, whoever it may be, to find a suitable solution to this situation which could include allowing the vessel to stay moored in Chattanooga if a business plan is presented to the City that is sustainable and makes sense for the waterfront," McDonough wrote.

Meanwhile the city is buzzing about the mayor's push to move the boat.

On Monday, the mayor's office said it had received several emails from residents for and against the planned eviction of the Delta Queen on Sept. 30.

Supporters were vocal on social media, and outnumbered detractors.

"So we can force this beautiful boat to move within one month, with no public outcry to do so. But we can't get that run-down restaurant (eyesore) 100 yards down the river, that everyone in this city wants gone, to go away?" wrote Chris Cooke, referring to a controversial barge moored a quarter-mile away.

"I've been a supporter of Andy Berke until now. If he makes this decision to evict the Delta Queen, I will join the hundreds who will fight to evict him from his office," wrote Jeremie Gentry.

Bob Doak, president and CEO of the Chattanooga Convention and Visitors Bureau, said he couldn't calculate the economic impact of the Delta Queen, but said he had received complaints from around 25 influential people over the years who said the boat got in the way of their downtown view, specifically the view of the aquarium.

"Ultimately she needs to be sailing the rivers of America," Doak said.

He also said the boat's condition is not in keeping with the grandeur of the city. Rubbish washes up in the area between the boat and the dock. The exterior looks tired, he said.

"You need to put your best foot forward," Doak said.

Such statements are a long way from what many said when the Delta Queen arrived in Chattanooga in 2009.

Motorists pulled over on the side of the road to see her pass by on the river. People stood on their backyard decks to watch. Men in hard hats stopped working.

"Welcome Back Delta Queen," one sign read. "We love you."

Mayor Ron Littlefield said at the time that the riverboat's arrival marked the start of Chattanooga's second golden age.

"I just want to say to the Delta Queen, 'Welcome Home,'" he said. "We were waiting for you."

Sally Muse, whose father was chief engineer on the boat for 20 years, said she was devastated when she learned that Chattanooga no longer wanted the Delta Queen. A photo of her father still hangs in the engine room.

Muse follows everything that happens with the riverboat, even though she lives in Knoxville.

"It's all political. They are jerks. I am telling you," she said. "I want her to move to another river where she is appreciated. She needs a paint job. She needs a lot of things, but she is a national treasure. It makes me sick."

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