Investors led by a former Delta Queen Steamboat executive and a bipartisan group of lawmakers are trying to get the historic steamboat cruising the inland rivers again.
Cornel Martin, who was with Delta Queen for nearly a dozen years, has submitted a letter of intent from his group, DQSC Inc., to buy the vessel, which is now a dockside hotel in Chattanooga, Tenn. He said he is competing with a group from Sacramento, Calif., that wants to keep operating it as a hotel and move it west.
At the same time, Rep. Steve Chabot, R-Ohio, has proposed a 15-year exemption from federal law that would let the 176-passenger paddlewheeler sail again. He has support from both sides of the aisle in the House as well as Ohio’s two senators, Sherrod Brown, a Democrat, and Rob Portman, a Republican, who also have introduced bills.
The steel-hulled vessel has a wood and steel superstructure, so it has needed a series of exemptions from the 1966 Safety of Life at Sea Act (SOLAS) that requires passenger vessels of 50 or more passengers be built of fire retardant materials. A grass roots effort and congressional approval in 1970 kept the Delta Queen alive, but her luck ran out after a previous owner took over operations. The boat was part of the money-losing Majestic America Line, which shut down in 2008.
Martin would not say how much his group bid but estimates the boat will need $4 million to $5 million in improvements including new boilers. “The steam engines are still in excellent condition,” he said Tuesday. “The paddlewheel is going to need refurbishing.” The generators and HVAC system will also need work.
He expects to hear later this month whether his bid was accepted and they can draw up a purchase agreement.
“We just want to get her back on the river again,” Martin said. “It’s a natural fit for me.”
He’s not sure where the boat will be homeported. They are looking for a city that’s willing to offer some economic development aid to complement the private financing they have lined up. The response from Cincinnati, where the Delta Queen was once based, “has been overwhelming,” he said.
His bid is not contingent on the federal legislation. “We’re very optimistic about the exemption,” Martin said.
“For nearly 40 years, she cruised along our riverfront, and Cincinnatians have fond memories of her time here,” Chabot said. “And that’s what we want to do — bring this national landmark back to our waterways.”
As for the outlook for his bill, Chabot said, “Now that the previous labor dispute appears to be resolved, I am optimistic the legislation will have bipartisan support and pass in relatively short order.”
When Ambassadors International, Majestic’s parent, bought the vessel it acquired only the boat and not the contracts of the unions that ran her. Ambassadors implied when the exemption was under discussion that union opposition influenced the new Democratic majority in Washington. The union disagreed. Congress let the exemption expire.
If Martin succeeds, the Delta Queen would become part of an inland river cruising renaissance that began last year with the American Queen and the Queen of the Mississippi.
Spokesmen for Delta Queen’s current owner, Xanterra Parks & Resorts, Greenwood Village, Colo., which bought the boat in 2011, did not respond to a request for comment.