Choppy waters greet Tarpon's newest casino

The Mardi Gras Queen is trying to gain trust in a city that other gambling ships have left wary.

Published January 30, 2005

TARPON SPRINGS - When a worker for a new casino boat company tried to buy $300 worth of dock hardware this month, a store owner told him to take his business elsewhere.

Even when the worker offered cash, the store owner said no.

The last guy who ran a casino boat out of the Sponge Docks never paid up, and the owner wasn't going to take that risk again, said Matthew Plauche, general manager of the new Mardi Gras Queen Casino.

Gambling ships have cruised in and out of Tarpon Springs for a decade, each leaving mistrust in its wake. Down at the docks, eyebrows raise at the mention of the floating casinos as merchants balance their hope for anything that will boost business in the tourist district with wariness over the casinos' sketchy history.

"You'd like to see them stay for a long time, but they don't," said Mayor Beverley Billiris, who owns property on Dodecanese Boulevard and has rented space to casino boats there. "Some are very successful ... but historically down at the docks, they haven't been."

It has been more than two years since the last casino boat left, and a new venture is battling those ghosts.

When Mardi Gras Queen Casino employees arrived late last year and began renovating the dock behind Pappas' Riverside Restaurant, the first store they visited refused to sell them 15 piling toppers. It was the same story with coffee vendors, fuel suppliers and paper-goods merchants.

"A lot of people got burned" by other boats, said Plauche, who moved from Massachusetts to launch the project.

So one by one, Plauche is tackling that checkered history, trying to disassociate his casino from the others that left bad feelings.

"We're not requesting credit terms," Plauche said. "We're going to let our business practices speak for themselves."

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Casino cruises came to Tarpon Springs in 1994, with the launch of Mr. Lucky, named after the Greek casino ship in the 1943 movie of the same name. The 83-foot-long converted ferry made two daily five-hour trips out to international waters, where the gambling began. After a year and a half, the owners sold the boat.

Other boats followed, turning the Sponge Capital of the World into a slice of Las Vegas, with names such as The Dixie Duck, the Magic Mermaid, Excalibur, El Dorado and Victori.

Some people worried casinos were eroding the old-world charm of the Sponge Docks, and local church leaders expressed concerns about moral integrity.

In 1997, four city commissioners voted to make sure most of the boats at the Sponge Docks were the kind used for fishing and sponging, not large boats used for blackjack and poker tables. The law didn't specifically target gambling ships but was designed to limit them in the city, specifically to keep them from overrunning the Sponge Docks.

In 1998, state law enforcement authorities shut down the Magic Mermaid for allowing passengers to gamble before the boat reached international waters. The company behind the Excalibur, Camelot Casino Cruises, filed for Chapter 11 bankruptcy protection after an investor pulled out.

Another boat, the Victori, flopped in 2001 after a string of problems, including a mechanical shutdown and bad publicity from a $10,000 IOU handed out to a big winner.

In 2002, the city torpedoed a proposal to bring a casino boat, hotel and convention center to N Pinellas Avenue. The gambling business in the area tanked when a Stardancer Casino Cruise ship was repossessed, disappearing from its Sponge Docks berth after the ship's owners ran into financial trouble.

Then, in January 2003, FBI agents raided several Stardancer Casino boats, including one in Tarpon Springs, and seized evidence in an embezzlement investigation.

No casino boat has docked in Tarpon Springs since - not until this month.

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The rebirth started in 2003, when prominent Pensacola lawyer and casino boat executive Charles Liberis pitched to the city the 202-foot Casino Odyssey.

But his plans were derailed by a drawn-out search for adequate parking, boat repairs and last summer's hurricanes. He bowed out of the project this fall to make way for the Mardi Gras Queen Casino, whose Las Vegas-based parent company had been considering Tarpon Springs for five years.

The company signed a lease to rent space behind Pappas' Riverside Restaurant, and it squared away approval from the city last week.

Starting Feb. 6, passengers will shuttle from Dodecanese Boulevard on a refurbished whale-watching boat to the casino ship. The 280-seat shuttle will make six 50-minute trips a day, beginning at 9:3 0 a.m. and bringing back the last passengers when the casino closes at 2 a.m. Free valet parking will be offered outside the restaurant, and trips to and from the casino are free.

The 186-foot, three-level casino boat will eventually stay out at sea for two weeks at a time, coming in to port only for maintenance and fuel. On board will be 225 slot machines, 15 poker tables, nine blackjack tables and a table each for roulette and dice. One of the casino's highlights will be an extensive series of poker tournaments that include champions from the World Series of Poker.

At a public hearing before the City Commission on Tuesday, when commissioners approved the shuttle plan, eight people spoke in favor of bringing the gaming industry back to the docks. No one spoke against it.

At the very least, a gambling boat would bring people to the Sponge Docks, supporters said.

"People means business," said David Gauchman, vice president of the Sponge Docks Merchants Association, who owns a women's clothing store and a wine shop on Dodecanese Boulevard.

When the first boats came, the docks had an upswing in business, he said. Sure, the people who will ride the ship are coming to gamble, and many won't stick around to soak up sponge culture or shop the strip. But it can't hurt, he said.

By its very nature, the gaming industry has its opponents in Tarpon Springs.

It's an old argument, said Anita Protos, who fought against the casinos when she was on the commission in the '80s and '90s.

"What we have in Tarpon is too rich and too beautiful to be polluted by a gambling ship," she said.

When the City Commission approved the project Tuesday night, it was grudgingly done.

Because the project met the city's legal standards, commissioners said they had no choice but to approve the project regardless of their personal feelings on gambling.

"It's the casino boat that is the issue - which is something that we don't regulate," Commissioner David Archie said. "That boat is out there 9 miles off shore. ... What are we to do - violate what we have set up there?"

The Mardi Gras Queen Casino will do its best to combat that opposition and skepticism. The company has donated $9,000 to local organizations and has committed to serve at least one charity a month.

Casino representatives went door-to-door down Dodecanese Boulevard, inviting merchants on a VIP cruise and offering to feature merchandise in a display on the ship.

The company knows it must fight to disassociate itself from the other companies that have sullied the industry's reputation before the Mardi Gras Queen Casino ever docked.

"We wanted to make sure the old rough waters have been calmed," Plauche said.

Nora Koch can be reached at 727 771-4304 or nkoch@sptimes.com