Another casino boat runs out of luck

Owners are optimistic, although Tarpon Springs' beleaguered history with such enterprises seems to keep repeating itself.

Published April 27, 2005

TARPON SPRINGS - Seems a sure bet in this city that a casino boat sails on rough waters.

The Mardi Gras Queen Casino, a floating gambling boat that opened in January with promises of stability and reliability, quietly shut down operations earlier this month.

Now signs hang on the doors of the offices behind Pappas' Riverside Restaurant, thanking employees for their patience and telling customers the casino is "closed until further notice." Workers say they have been laid off since early April and are owed pay for hours worked.

But management says the docking is temporary and is a result of an ownership and management reshuffle and revocation of the mother ship's lease. When the Mardi Gras Queen Casino reopens next month, it will be with a new casino boat and restructured leadership, said Russell Thornton, one of the managers.

And, Thornton said, the company's rebirth will include back pay for the employees.

"As soon as the capital is available, we're going to take care of everybody who didn't get paid," Thornton said.

For a decade, gambling ships have cruised in and out of Tarpon Springs, often leaving mistrust in their wakes. When Mardi Gras Queen Casino opened, its managers said they knew they were up against the perceptions left by previous boats but pledged to battle those ghosts with an aboveboard operation and commitment to local philanthropy.

Mardi Gras Queen Casino took its first cruise to nowhere on Feb. 6, shuttling passengers from Dodecanese Boulevard in a refurbished whale-watching boat to the 186-foot, three-level casino boat in international waters. That boat had 225 slot machines, 15 poker tables, nine blackjack tables and a table each for roulette and dice, and served drinks and light meals.

It was suddenly taken back up north by the owner, Thornton said, and his company found a new and bigger casino boat. He said a boat will be back in business next month with the same team of employees.

But some employees say after the layoffs and empty company bank accounts, they won't return.

Kara Ramirez, a 24-year-old mother of two, started working in the reservations department when the company launched in January. The Tampa woman was supposed to work 32 hours a week for $7.50 an hour, but managers often cut her workdays short, she says.

In April, the company closed its doors and told workers it would be a few weeks before a reopening with a new boat and new owner. When Ramirez went to pick up her paycheck, she found a sign on the door telling her to come back the next week. When that day came, she said, she was told there was no money to pay employees.

If she had known she'd be out of work for several weeks, Ramirez said she'd be looking for a new job. She doesn't plan to return to work when the boat sails again but still wants to be paid for hours worked, which she estimated at about $300.

Her friend Capri Miller, 25, of Holiday, faces the same situation.

"I really just want to get my paycheck and move along from the whole situation," said Miller, who also worked in the reservations department.

Craig Matthews, the company's director of marine operations, expects all but one of his 27 employees to return to work when the company starts up again.

He's been in the gambling boat business since 1988, and he thinks the Mardi Gras has all the ingredients for success.

"All we need to do is have some fresh money and people who are ready to do what it takes to get the job done," said the St. Petersburg man. "When we start back up, we've got a reputation we've got to rebuild."

Staff researcher Caryn Baird contributed to this report. Nora Koch can be reached at nkoch@sptimes.com or 727 771-4304.