The mayor's office reversed its stance on the Delta Queen on Tuesday after days of defending the riverboat's planned eviction despite growing public disapproval.
Travis McDonough, the mayor's chief of staff, said the boat will be allowed to stay another six months and that if and when the boat is purchased from Xanterra Cruise LLC, the city will discuss the possibility of allowing it to remain.
"This agreement is conditioned on all rent being paid on time," McDonough wrote to the boat's manager, Leah Ann Ingram, on Tuesday. "The city will expect the new owner to furnish a sustainable business plan to ensure the vessel is kept up to the reasonable standard."
Under the agreement, Xanterra will pay the rent from now on as the company searches for a new owner, and the city will now charge $1,500 a month. The previous rent had been $500 plus 1 percent of the riverboat's gross revenue.
Last week, the Times Free Press revealed a berthing agreement between the mayor's office and Xanterra that would have forced the Delta Queen out of Chattanooga by Sept. 30. The eviction was never discussed publicly.
The mayor has not spoken about the Delta Queen, but members of his staff said the boat was behind in rent -- more than $10,000 -- and that the national historic landmark, which will be honored this weekend as a National Treasure by the National Trust, is an eyesore.
Berke was supported by Bob Doak, CEO of the Chattanooga Convention and Visitors Bureau, who said that two dozen influential people had told him at one time or another that the 86-year-old steamboat obstructed their view of downtown and the Tennessee Aquarium.
The boat's manager, Leah Ann Ingram, has disputed the claims of unpaid rent and questioned the city's motives, accounting and what she called its lack of communication.
In an open letter to Berke and the Chattanooga City Council released Tuesday, Ingram said the city never let her know about an outstanding balance of $11,000.
The city's fiscal analyst confirmed in emails dated Aug. 15, 2012. and Nov. 30, 2012, the rent amounts due to the city, but the city now claims other amounts are due for those periods, she wrote.
She also said the city overstated the boat's gross revenue and never communicated concerns about the boat's appearance.
"Does the city care that the Delta Queen is the last steamboat of its kind?" she wrote.
When two citizens tried to attend a Tuesday press briefing at City Hall about the Delta Queen, they were told they weren't allowed.
Charles Pierce, 73, works in the tourism industry and arranges motorcoach tours for visitors who often stay on the Delta Queen.
When he asked why he couldn't enter, he was told it was limited to press. When he asked why, again, Kyle Miller, an assistant to the mayor, said, "It just is."
"That is like my momma telling me, 'Because I said so,'" Pierce said to Miller. "That is not really a reason."
"I am not going to stand here and argue with you," Miller said. He said a member of the staff could speak to Pierce after the press briefing.
A few minutes later, McDonough announced to the media that a deal on the Delta Queen had been reached.
When asked why the mayor's office had changed its mind about the Delta Queen, McDonough said they always thought it could be an asset. After a few questions, no more were allowed.
Even though the boat can remain in its berth off Coolidge Park for another six months, the boat's future is uncertain.
The boat is still for sale by Xanterra. While the Ingrams have made an offer to purchase the boat, bids are still being accepted. Other river cities like Cincinnati are vying for the steamboat in hopes it would be a boon to their tourism. Congress has yet to clear the riverboat for overnight river travel.
"We are very excited that the city is letting the Delta Queen stay, but we want to resolve the issues at hand of the back rent," Ingram said. "We want to sit down one on one to resolve it."
Contact staff writer Joan Garrett at email@example.com or 423-757-6601.