St. Petersburg Times Online: Business

Weather | Sports | Forums | Comics | Classifieds | Calendar | Movies

Gambling ship suffers criticism, new delay

The recent storms postpone the Ocean Jewel's opening a third time, as a local NAACP official questions their hiring practices toward minorities.

MARCUS FRANKLIN
Published September 18, 2004

ST. PETERSBURG - A year ago, the owners of a new casino ship predicted the Ocean Jewel of St. Petersburg would open for business in March, but then said homeland security issues got in the way.

Then in July, the owners said the 450-foot ship would set sail from the Port of St. Petersburg with the sounds of gambling and partying in mid- to late-August.

Now officials at Titan Cruise Lines, the company that owns the Ocean Jewel, blame delays on Florida's recent spate of hurricanes and won't even give a tentative starting date.

"You won't get a date out of me," said Howard Steffes, Titan's chief executive.

Meanwhile, as Titan officials continued preparations to open, a local civil rights group has been asking questions about their hiring of minority and Midtown residents.

In a letter this month to Titan's human resources director, St. Petersburg NAACP president Darryl Rouson questioned whether the company made enough effort to hire local minority residents.

Rouson said officials assured him and city leaders that "a significant number" of jobs would be offered to minorities, "particularly Midtown residents," according to a copy of the letter.

"I have received an inquiry which alleged that "most' of your hires are coming from outside of St. Petersburg," Rouson wrote to Paula Patterson. "Wisconsin has been mentioned as a source ... I t was mentioned that African-Americans from St. Petersburg are not being hired in significant numbers. If these allegations are true, then it is contrary to what we were led to believe."

Patterson wrote Rouson back with a racial breakdown of the company's employees. She offered to meet with Rouson to discuss "avenues of hiring within our community." She said the company's hiring decisions are affected by U.S. Coast Guard and homeland security requirements, specifically, exclusion of applicants with criminal histories.

"Many of our positions require specific skills sets and many of those skills are not prevalent in this community ... " Patterson wrote in her Sept. 8 letter.

In interviews this week, Patterson and Howard Steffes, Titan's chief executive, defended their efforts and their 605-member staff. Of their employees, they said 449 are white; 68 are African-American; 26 are Asian-American; 19 are native American; and 43 are Hispanic. (Hispanics can be of any race.)

Moreover, they said, 15 minorities hold "high positions" including chief operating officer, and 106 of their employees live in Midtown, Patterson said.

In February, the company held a job fair with City Council member Rene Flowers' help. The company hired 52 applicants from the fair, Patterson said.

"We are very proud of the diversity we have within this company," Patterson said. "We have really worked with this community to make sure we're living up to our commitment," she said.

Rouson responded to the numbers by saying, "The figures ... appear encouraging. There seems to have been some effort. It may not have been the total and full effort that we may have wanted but clearly there's some effort here."

Patterson said the company plans to hand out fliers in Midtown that advertise poker dealer training classes to be held in October. The training doesn't guarantee a job.

The Ocean Jewel, which is docked at the Port of St. Petersburg, will feature a casino and nightclub, restaurant and private party rooms. Blackjack, roulette, poker and craps tables as well as more than 1,000 slot and video poker machines will fill the 300-foot casino.

Ocean Jewel has faced several stumbling blocks since city officials announced in December 2002 the deal to bring the cruise ship to the city.

Original owners ran into financial problems in 2003.

Steffes, the company's chief executive, said Charley, Frances and Ivan forced the ship to leave port several times, delaying preparations needed to start business.Final Coast Guard inspections are pending.

Marcus Franklin can be reached at mfranklin@sptimes.com or 727 893-8488.

© Copyright, St. Petersburg Times. All rights reserved.