'Jewel' stops shuttles from port

The gambling ship's CEO also laid off 50 workers at the St. Petersburg site.

Published July 23, 2005

ST. PETERSBURG - Just nine months after its maiden voyage, the Ocean Jewel has halted operations out of the Port of St. Petersburg.

Dennis Shepard, CEO of Titan Cruise Lines, the Ocean Jewel's parent company, says he hasn't determined whether the closure is permanent. But he laid off 50 employees from the St. Petersburg operation earlier this week.

"They're hourly employees," Shepard said. "It wasn't fair to them and it didn't make any sense to let them hang around when we weren't operating out of St. Petersburg."

The company will continue using two shuttles to ferry passengers from John's Pass in Treasure Island to the 2,200-passenger Ocean Jewel.

Shepard said he decided to close the St. Petersburg site because of mechanical problems with the cruise line's largest ferry, the Sapphire, which sails only from the port.

He said mechanics are working on the ferry and he plans to make a final decision early next week whether the St. Petersburg location will be reopened.

Shepard said those laid off include security guards, tram operators and crew members.

David Metz, the city's downtown enterprise facilities administrator, said he was notified Wednesday by Titan Cruise Lines about the changes.

Metz said the news wasn't surprising because the number of passengers leaving from the port has dropped significantly since ferries began running out of John's Pass in April.

In March, there were 21,298 Ocean Jewel passengers leaving from St. Petersburg. The number dropped to 11,144 in April. By June it had plummeted to 4,547.

But Metz said Titan Cruise Lines was prompt in its payments to the city and generated about $55,000 a month. The city collected $2 for every passenger that boarded the Ocean Jewel at the port, as well as dockage and parking fees. It receives nothing from John's Pass passengers.

Metz said the cruise line currently owes the city about $54,000 in uncollected fees, but the bill is less than 30 days old. The city also has a $108,000 deposit from Titan if the cruise line fails to make the payment.

"We were very prudent in the way we structured the deal," Metz said.

The Ocean Jewel has been plagued by problems, including a fire on one of the trams that shuttled people from the parking lot to the port and customers who have been kept aboard the 450-foot casino ship for hours when bad weather hampered ferry access to the ship.

Two of its shuttles also struck the bridge barriers at John's Pass at least four times.

Shepard is the fourth CEO of Titan Cruise Lines since the deal to bring a gambling ship to downtown St. Petersburg was announced in December 2002. His most recent predecessor, Michael Hlavsa, resigned earlier this month.

Before taking over as CEO, Shepard said he was with a Seattle-based management company called Cascade Capital. He also served for several months as Titan's chief operations officer.

Shepard maintained the business was still economically sound, although he said bad weather and the recent problems have taken a toll.

"We've had our struggles," Shepard said. "but we're doing fine and we're in full operation at John's Pass."

On Friday afternoon, the Ocean Jewel's terminal at the port was nearly deserted, with the exception of a couple of security guards. The computers had been removed from the counter where tickets were sold. But there were no signs warning potential customers of the closure.

City Council member Bill Foster said he wasn't optimistic the Ocean Jewel would reopen in St. Petersburg.

"We at City Hall have speculated for months that the numbers are just not adding up to this being a profit-making enterprise," Foster said. "Are they in breach of contract to us? Yes, they're probably in breach, but time will take care of that."

Foster said he wouldn't be sad to see the Ocean Jewel leave. Titan officials originally promised twice daily cruises from the port and family-friendly entertainment such as comedians and musical acts.

Foster said that promise wasn't delivered.

"There was no entertainment and the food was just an afterthought," he said. "It was just a gambling boat, floors and floors of gaming."

Carrie Johnson can be reached at 727 892-2273 or cjohnson@sptimes.com