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A Minnesota builder wants to bring a 180-unit condominium development to Chattanooga's waterfront in the next couple of years. Contributed rendering

A Minnesota builder wants to bring a 180-unit condominium development to Chattanooga's waterfront in the next couple of years.

But don't expect the downtown landscape to change.

David Nelson, a 58-year-old who lives on a houseboat on the Mississippi River in St. Paul, Minn., says he plans to build the world's biggest inland passenger boat to float year-round to river cities from Minnesota to Florida and from Texas to Pennsylvania.

If he is successful, the "floating community" of 350 residents and crew could briefly dock in Chattanooga by 2013 as part of the boat's annual 10,700-mile journey along more than a half dozen rivers and the Intracoastal Waterway to the Gulf of Mexico.

"This is like owning a waterfront condo with a changing view most every day - and no worries about either hurricanes or snow," Nelson said Thursday.

Before construction begins on the first part of the proposed $110 million boat, however, Nelson needs investors. He's looking for nearly 100 people to pay anywhere from $54,800 for a two-month lease of a one-bedroom unit to $1.8 million to own one of the luxury two-bedroom condos.

So far, buyers have made deposits on more than 20 units of the first 90-unit boat, which is to be built at a shipyard in Louisiana.

Nelson and Bill Tout, a Maine businessman who has invested in the River Cities venture, will pitch their idea in Chattanooga for at least the next week with a model houseboat scheduled to arrive today at Ross's Landing.

The pair already have traveled more than 5,500 miles to promote the idea of their rivergoing condo community, which Nelson has billed the Marquette.

Tout said traveling on the river offers a better view and more social contacts than seeing the country from a motor home.

"We're combining travel with a sense of a community," he said. "With 36 million baby boomers about to retire, we think there is a real market for this type of travel."

Unlike on ocean cruises, residents will own their condos and will have to buy and cook their own food in their homes or in the boat's restaurant or deli. For a fee, the boat operators will offer land excursions aboard a bus or cars that will travel on the same route as the boat.

Mississippi River roots

Nelson has been a contractor and developer in commercial, residential and marine construction for more than three decades. He has lived on the Mississippi River in St. Paul, Minn., for 23 years with his wife, Renae.

"When people see where my wife and I live, they often tell us of their dream to live on a boat and to cruise the entire length of the Mississippi," Nelson said.

Nelson has spent six and a half years trying to make his Mark Twain-style dream a reality with the biggest riverboat of its type ever built.

A 165-unit condominium ocean cruiser known as The World launched in 2002 as the largest privately owned yacht in the world. Its homes typically cost in the millions of dollars - at least eight times as much as what Nelson is proposing for his river-boat residences.

"It's been a challenge designing a boat that offers the amenities we want to offer on a boat that is able to get below the bridges, through the locks and dock at the ports where we want to stop," Nelson said of his pioneering venture.

Navigating Through Time

The Marquette may be split in two to get through locks and waterways that are narrower than its 110-foot width.

Nelson also is having to navigate through choppy economic tides. He introduced the concept in August 2008; a month later the stock market plunged in the wake of the collapse of Lehman Brothers and AIG.

"We had to hold off for a while," he said. "You learn to live on 'river time.'"

Nelson resurrected his marketing campaign in Houston in January and soon will head north toward Cincinnati.

The marketing voyage is similar to what Nelson hopes the Marquette will travel, once completed. The boat will travel through southern waters during the winter and head north in the summer.

Nelson concedes his venture goes into uncharted waters, but he thinks the project could be the first of several such boats.

"No one's built a boat like this on inland water, but I think people will find this an ideal way to travel," he said.

John Darrah, a 71-year-old business owner in Panama City, Fla., says he is sold on the concept and has agreed to buy a top-floor, one-bedroom condo for $475,000.

"When I first heard about this boat, I wasn't too impressed, but the more I learned about it and talked with David Nelson, the more I realized he had a well-thought out plan was and how well-engineered this boat will be," Darrah said. "So we decided this could be fun."

A West Point graduate, Darrah said he has started and owned 10 businesses and still owns a half-dozen companies. With computer access and phone service provided via satellite on the boat, Darrah said he can continue to oversee his businesses while seeing America.

Darrah has had a motor home for the past two and a half years, but he is eager for a different type of adventure.

"I love my RV, but I get tired of driving that all the time and the idea of watching the shore go by and to leave all of the driving to someone else is extremely appealing to me," he said.