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A friend of folk, afoul of authority

H. DeWayne Williams wants to move a gambling boat operation to Port Richey, but he may face some rough waters.

By MATTHEW WAITE, Times Staff Writer
© St. Petersburg Times
published November 10, 2002


Every time H. DeWayne Williams moves a gambling boat, legal problems follow. His next stop could be Port Richey.

Oddly, while Williams has often run afoul of the authorities, people in the towns where he does business often have good things to say about him.

Williams, the owner of La Cruise Casino in Mayport, is one of the major investors in a venture that plans to pour $40-million into a hotel and gambling boat enterprise on Port Richey's waterfront.

That plan faces two major obstacles: numerous land problems on Port Richey's waterfront and building a gambling and hotel property at a time when other gambling interests are having cash-flow problems because of the down economy.

Williams is no stranger to problems of his own.

In South Carolina, Williams brought the first boat to the state, the Victori, and later brought another to Little River, S.C. Several times, state and county politicians have tried to force him out of the state. But in 1998 a federal court judge ruled in Williams' favor, allowing other boats to come to the state.

In Mississippi, Williams was indicted in 1992 for falsifying reports to customs officials, charges that were later dropped when he pleaded to a misdemeanor contempt of court charge and forfeited more than $94,000.

In Florida, Williams was charged in 1995 with failing to pay more than $50,000 in sales taxes. He entered a pretrial diversion program and paid a fine and more than $58,000 in restitution and fines.

In 1996, Williams was denied a gambling license in Mississippi because of his contempt plea.

Williams, who did not return calls for comment, has said that crossing paths with the law was an inconvenience.

"I'm not going to evade what happened," Williams told the Tampa Tribune in 1997. "Why should I try to hide it?"

In Mississippi, Williams said he was a victim of an overzealous customs agent and local politicians.

"I got caught up in the tail end of Mississippi politics," he said. "I was an outsider who succeeded."

Williams' name recently came up in the public corruption trial of former legislator W.D. Childers in Escambia County. According to an indictment, two real estate brokers involved in a land deal in the middle of the controversy there wired the proceeds to Williams' La Cruise boat.

Escambia County prosecutors didn't return calls asking about the money, but an attorney for the brokers said the money was a loan that Williams has since repaid.

Williams' history as depicted in court records is often at odds with his business reputation in the towns where he has owned boats.

Two gambling boats sail from Mayport (near Jacksonville). David Fisher, the Mayport Village Civic Association president, said he doesn't have much nice to say about one and not much bad to say about Williams.

"If you've got to have a gambling boat in your neighborhood, (Williams) is the one you want," Fisher said.

Why?

Fisher ticked off instances where Williams put up his own cash to help Mayport install sewers or fund the village's annual festival (held in Williams' gambling boat parking lot).

"He's very in tune with what's going on up here," he said.

Mayport isn't the only place Williams has earned a good civic reputation.

Andrew Thielen, the executive director of the Little River, S.C., Chamber of Commerce said Williams did similar good deeds when he brought the first gambling boat to South Carolina.

The chamber's lone fundraiser each year -- a crab festival -- was held in Williams' parking

Coming to Port Richey

If the plan works -- and with little more than an occupational license for the shuttles and a building permit to fix a dock, it's a big if -- Williams and the other investors could radically change Port Richey

Aside from physical changes, a hotel that size would generate nearly $70,000 in local property taxes for the city of Port Richey. The prospect of an almost 8 percent increase in tax collections is attractive to City Council members still frustrated with a tight budget.

Tourist taxes would add tens of thousands of dollars to county coffers. A conservative estimate using a half-full hotel charging $100 a night would generate $54,000 in tourist taxes alone, county budget director Mike Nurrenbrock said. (By comparison, that's about one-fifth of the tourist tax revenue generated by the Saddlebrook resort in Wesley Chapel.)

But before it can generate any tax money, the venture must overcome several obstacles. Even the dock the hotel venture wants to use for its shuttle boats might be a major problem. The dock sits on land owned by an existing gambling boat operation, Paradise of Port Richey.

The dock is near the Seaside Inn, a business owned by local businessman Don Johnson on land he leases from Paradise Holdings of Port Richey Inc. The owner of Paradise Holdings is Alex Kolokithas, who owns the Paradise gambling boat.

Consultant Danny Fell, who is leading the hotel construction in Port Richey, said the company has made arrangements for the land with Johnson, and Johnson has a legal right to build on the Seaside site.

But the Seaside lease has already been the subject of two civil suits that have left the question of who can do what, where very much up in the air.

If the past is a guide, the Kolokithases won't take kindly to competition moving in. Paradise fought bitterly with Stardancer Casino Cruises when that competitor moved into Port Richey, eventually winning an environmental suit that would have shut Stardancer down if its gambling boat had not been repossessed.

A bit of a reach

Given the problems in Port Richey -- feisty neighbors, no parking, shallow river -- the hotel and gambling cruise venture is a risk, said Dave Schwartz, coordinator for the Gaming Studies Research Center at the University of Nevada Las Vegas.

And the gambling industry isn't immune to a down economy. Hotel construction is down, and while gaming is faring better, it's still a tough time to own a casino, Schwartz said.

"Money is definitely kind of tight in today's gaming market," Schwartz said. But the hotel-gambling boat combination -- something Schwartz hadn't heard of -- may work, because gaming would help the hotel, which would in turn help the gaming.

But the whole plan depends on how much the boat makes. And there's no way to know -- Florida boats are unregulated and boat incomes are a hotly guarded secret.

"It seems like it's a bit of a reach," Schwartz said of the Port Richey venture. "(The problems) all seem like deal breakers."

-- Matthew Waite can be reached in west Pasco at 869-6247, or toll-free at 1-800-333-7505, ext. 6247. His e-mail address is waite@sptimes.com .

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