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SunCruz loses dock lease

About 160 employees with the casino and cruise ship operation will lose their jobs or transfer to another of the company's ships.

CURTIS KRUEGER
Published October 4, 2003

TREASURE ISLAND - To all hands on the SunCruz VIII casino and cruise ship, business seemed to be looking up.

The gleaming new ship arrived in August to replace an older vessel, and started carrying as many as 600 people on some days, even in the normally slow month of September.

But this week the employees' optimism went bust: SunCruz lost its lease at a dock on John's Pass.

The ship will go, and 160 employees will either lose their jobs or transfer to one of SunCruz's six other ships, none of which are docked in the Tampa Bay area.

"I don't know what I'm going to do," said Jeanne Walker, group sales coordinator and lead host. "It's still kind of sinking in. It's hard to believe."

SunCruz CEO Michael Hlavsa said the ship's payroll amounts to $3-million per year, and losing it will prove an economic blow to the community. He said he is looking for another spot suitable to dock the ship, but has nothing definite yet.

"We're going to continue to look as feverishly as we can," Hlavsa said.

The ship will remain open and docked in John's Pass through Oct. 31.

SunCruz has been leasing dock space behind Gator's Cafe & Saloon on John's Pass on a monthly basis since December. SunCruz and Gator's have been negotiating a new lease, but could not come to terms, both sides said.

Gator's Cafe & Saloon is owned by the Rice family, one of Treasure Island's largest landowners. Sid Rice said Friday he was concerned that SunCruz has been in Chapter 11 bankruptcy, and said that was a factor in the lease negotiations.

"It's unfortunate it happened, that both parties couldn't work out something and a lot of people are going to lose their jobs," Rice said.

Hlavsa said he believes there was another factor: that the owners of Majesty I, a cruise ship that recently located at John's Pass, agreed to rent a portion of the Gator's dock, thereby taking over the space used by a competitor.

"From what we understand, our competitors have leased a portion of the property, which does not make our operation there feasible," Hlavsa said.

Steve Duke, general manager of the Majesty I, confirmed the company has rented part of the dock at Gators, but he denied it was an effort to squeeze SunCruz out. He said the Majesty I will not be docking at Gator's any time soon.

That means the company will have dock space at Gator's and at a marina on the Madeira Beach side of the pass.

The news of SunCruz's departure was upsetting not just to employees, but to customers as well.

"I've hit so many jackpots on this boat it's unbelievable," said Harry Reed, 65, a contractor who lives in Madeira Beach and Sarasota. "They're very fair with everyone, the employees are wonderful."

"It's disheartening," said Michael D'Agostino, 49, a retired businessman who boards SunCruz about three times a week and whose wife goes even more frequently. D'Agostino, who lives in Madeira Beach, said he also was upset "being a member of this community, that 150 people have to be displaced."

Walker, the group sales coordinator, said other employees are just as upset. "They didn't understand how this could happen because we did so good."

A good number of the ship's employees are married to each other, meaning two people will be looking for jobs not long before the holidays.

SunCruz has seven ships with casinos that feature poker and blackjack tables, craps, roulette and slot machines. Five others are located in Hollywood, Daytona Beach, Key Largo, Port Canaveral and Jacksonville and another is in North Myrtle Beach, S.C.

The company also has a stormy history. SunCruz founder Gus Boulis, a pioneer in cruises to nowhere, was gunned down in Fort Lauderdale in 2001 in a shooting police described as "well-planned."

- Times Staff Writer Curtis Krueger can be reached at krueger@sptimes.com or 727 893-8232.

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