Launch of gambling cruise ship delayed

Repairs and a Coast Guard inspection likely will push the launch of the Casino Odyssey to the start of the tourist season.

Published July 18, 2004

TARPON SPRINGS - Don't bet on the Casino Odyssey casting off any time soon. Plans to launch the cruise to nowhere in Tarpon Springs have run aground again.

Months after Casino Odyssey owner Charles Liberis announced plans to set sail this spring, the Pensacola lawyer said the boat probably won't make its maiden voyage until October or November.

"We really struggled hard to get things up and running," Liberis said. "The boat is about ready to go, but we've still got some things to do."

First on the list: pass a U.S. Coast Guard inspection. Coast Guard spokesman Petty Officer Robert Suddarth said the American Bureau of Shipping, a marine safety company, inspected the ship in March. The company turned up about 25 items that must be fixed before the casino boat can begin operating, he said.

"There was a lot of stuff on the work list that needed to be done," Suddarth said.

Once the Coast Guard determines the Casino Odyssey is safe, it will issue a certificate of occupancy. That process could take a few days or several weeks depending on the conditions on the ship, Suddarth said.

Liberis said repairs on the boat are ongoing, and include everything from electrical work to installing new generators. The 202-foot-long ship must also be refitted and decorated. The long list of upgrades likely means the boat won't be ready for inspection until mid-August, he said.

Meanwhile, a crew of 18 has been hired to operate the boat. But, Liberis said, he won't begin hiring the 100 to 150 casino staffers, food servers and other personnel needed until about a month before the boat's launch. Liberis is disappointed by the delays, but he said a late-fall launch may make the best business sense.

"Unfortunately, it's not the kind of business that you can stagger your expenses," Liberis said. "So for right now we're just trying to gauge the seasonality to see when it makes the most business sense to start. The ideal time to start would be November, because that's the start of the tourist season."

Last year, the casino boat venture hit rough waters after city officials raised questions about the Sponge Docks enterprise. It took the city nearly four months to complete its review of his application for an occupational license to operate shuttle boats to the Casino Odyssey from Pappas' Riverside Restaurant.

In late January, city commissioners approved the casino boat business and Liberis' plan to provide 100 parking spaces for his customers. Earlier this year, Liberis was forced to hire an outside contractor to bring the boat into compliance with safety standards. The delay on repairs substantially increased start-up costs of the gambling venture, Liberis said.

Once it's running, the 350-passenger casino boat will be docked several miles away from the city in international waters. The cruise will include live entertainment and access to the roughly 300 slot machines and 20 gaming tables on the boat.

- Candace Rondeaux can be reached at 727 771-4307 or rondeaux@sptimes.com