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Casino cruises can use city port

After agreeing to several conditions set by the city staff, the company wins the City Council's approval to use the port of St. Petersburg.

By BRYAN GILMER, Times Staff Writer
© St. Petersburg Times
published December 20, 2002

ST. PETERSBURG -- The St. Petersburg City Council on Thursday unanimously authorized a startup company to run daily gambling cruises from the port of St. Petersburg.

"The city is assuming very, very little risk," council member John Bryan said soon before the 7-0 vote to approve the deal with Titan Cruise Lines. Member Jay Lasita was absent.

Council member Richard Kriseman said the only risk to the city is damage to its image if Titan fails in some way.

"We hope Titan will be very successful, successful beyond our wildest dreams," Kriseman said.

Titan and the venture capital firm funding it, Brigadoon Capital Partners, expect to create some 350 jobs and lease three top floors of the downtown Bank of America tower.

The ship, to be called the Spirit of St. Petersburg, will have an all U.S. crew but will be registered as a Panamanian ship, Titan chief financial officer Paul Barbour said. It may begin operating within the next three months.

The company, incorporated in the Cayman Islands, will pay dockage fees of $108,000 per year and pay the city $2 per passenger. Joe Zeoli, the city executive who oversees the port, projects that the vessel could bring the city more than $800,000 profit a year.

After Mayor Rick Baker announced his support of Titan's proposal Monday, city staffers added two extra requirements to the lease that lets Titan use the port: The company will have to prove that it owns the vessel, and the foreign company will have to show that it is authorized to do business in Florida.

At council member Bill Foster's request, Titan also agreed Thursday not to feature adult entertainment such as nude dancing.

Barbour acknowledged Thursday that the company has never owned a ship. Biographies of some company officers list experience in the gambling industry but not in running cruises.

Company officials also have declined to give their ship's former names. They did say the ship was built in Poland as a car ferry and then converted to a floating eye clinic. Now, they say, it is being modified at an undisclosed shipyard in Europe, where the car-carrying area is being turned into a casino that can hold 800 gamblers.

Barbour has said it will take the ship about an hour and 15 minutes to reach international waters, where gambling is unregulated.

But Capt. Steve Cropper, chairman of the Tampa Bay Pilots Association, estimated the trip from the port of St. Petersburg to international waters will take closer to an hour and 45 minutes, leaving about 41/2 hours of an 8-hour cruise for gambling.

However, Cropper said he has been given few details about the ship.

Company president Michael Huegel said Thursday that the longer time estimate doesn't bother him.

"We have so many amenities and so much entertainment on the vessel," he said.

Also Thursday, St. Petersburg NAACP branch president Darryl Rouson announced that Titan has committed to make every effort to name a local African-American member to its board of directors and to include a local black resident as an investor in the company.

"We are serious about diversity at the highest levels of decisionmaking, inclusion and real economic empowerment," Rouson said.

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