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Gambling ship may shuffle its plans

To allow more trips, the Ocean Jewel might be anchored offshore.

CARRIE JOHNSON
Published February 14, 2004

ST. PETERSBURG - Since the concept of a gambling ship was pitched to city officials more than a year ago, Titan Cruise Lines has planned to hold twice daily excursions from the Port of St. Petersburg.

That might be changing.

The company is now exploring ways to satisfy a demand for more frequent trips into international waters, where gambling is allowed. Among the options Titan is evaluating is leaving the 450-foot Ocean Jewel of St. Petersburg several miles offshore for "an extended period of time" and running a ferry service to the ship.

A final decision has not been made, but some city officials say they aren't happy with the possible change of plans.

"I would much rather see the ship sail every day," said City Council member John Bryan. "Part of the excitement of having that ship here comes from being able to watch it sail into the port."

Paul Barbour, Titan's chief financial officer, said the idea of more frequent trips to international waters was generated by business owners and members of the public.

While the Ocean Jewel can travel at speeds of as much as 20 knots, it would still take about an hour and 45 minutes for it to reach international waters, which is about 8 miles from the port. That means passengers wouldn't be allowed to gamble for almost two-thirds of a six-hour trip.

Also, the twice-daily format could be overly restrictive to working people, Barbour said. There may be people who want to gamble through the night.

"I certainly am not going to rule it out because somebody might find that customers want to go out there at 2 a.m.," Barbour said.

Barbour said he couldn't elaborate on how long the ship could remain in international waters because all the options had not been explored. But he said it was impractical to keep it at sea indefinitely because it would need to be refueled and restocked with food.

"This ship will be docked at the Port of St. Petersburg," Barbour said. "That isn't going to change."

Joe Zeoli, the city's managing director of administration and finance, said he has not been given a proposal from Titan regarding the potential shift in plans. He said he would not be opposed if the ship continued to provide entertainment options beyond gambling and the city received the revenue it was promised.

Titan has signed a contract with the city, agreeing to pay $108,000 per year in dockage fees plus $2 per passenger once cruises begin. The company's owners paid the city nearly $400,000 in July. That included a $108,000 deposit; another $108,000 for a full year's dockage fees and $165,000 to match a Florida Department of Transportation grant for improvements to the port.

Barbour said the company would continue to pay the city the promised fees. If they go forward with the plan, Titan wouldn't be the only company in the Tampa Bay area offering ferry service to a gambling ship.

In October, Tarpon Springs gave permission to Pensacola lawyer Charles Liberis to shuttle passengers to a 202-foot floating casino anchored in international waters. Operations are expected to begin in March.

But Bryan said he's not sold on the concept. He envisioned the Ocean Jewel as a family friendly day cruise.

Now it's being targeted more specifically toward gamblers.

"It's too bad," Bryan said. "We want them to be successful. And you can't force somebody to do something they don't want to do."

- Carrie Johnson can be reached at 892-2273 or cjohnson@sptimes.com

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