Floating gallery delays its visit

 It was to float into Tampa Bay for two museum benefits in January, but owners fear it won't be finished by then.

Published June 7, 2006

SeaFair, the $60-million floating commercial art gallery, is postponing its visit to the Tampa Bay area next year, a victim of the same supply shortages that have plagued construction projects on land.

The vessel, the first of its kind in the world, was to have docked in St. Petersburg and Tampa in January for its inaugural tour and to host benefits for the Museum of Fine Arts and the Tampa Museum of Art.

Both stops, and all others in Florida, have been canceled because its owners are concerned the yacht won't be finished in time.

"We had a 75 percent probability that we'd be ready in time," said David Lester, one of SeaFair's owners, "but that 25 percent was too much to risk. We didn't want to wait and jeopardize people's plans and then have to announce 30 days before an event that it had to be canceled."

Instead, SeaFair will make its first voyage along the eastern seaboard next summer.

If it's finished in time, a goodwill visit to the Tampa Bay area in March is a possibility, Lester said.

The delay is caused by a shortage of steel and steel workers, a problem that has plagued many projects and sent costs soaring.

Grand Luxe, the first SeaFair yacht, is under construction at Nichols Bros. Boat Builders in the Seattle area.

Its president, Bryan Nichols, said, "Construction is going forward but unforeseeable things have happened industrywide with steel and labor. We're not that far behind, but David wanted to make sure they weren't cutting it too close. We specialize in unique commercial vessels, but this one is really unique, with lots of high-end details that will take more time at the end."

Most of the space on the 228-foot yacht is designed to display art in galleries that are leased by dealers. The yacht also will have social areas for parties and crew quarters but no staterooms. The dealers sign on for at least a month and meet the yacht when it docks.

Lester and his wife, Lee Ann, have a long and profitable history in the art world as gallery owners and founders of land-based art fairs nationally and internationally. Several years ago, they sold their Palm Beach International Art and Antiques Fair for $18-million and came up with the idea of a floating fair that would take the business closer to collectors in multiple communities.

The cancellations here have left leaders at the museums scrambling for alternative plans for galas.

"We're disappointed, of course, but we'll move forward with a more traditional gala, the kind we usually do" said Roger Zeh, assistant director of the Museum of Fine Arts. "Right now we're in the middle of securing a new site and date. "

Lester emphasized that though costs are rising "daily," SeaFair will sail.

"I want to allay any concerns as far as finances or credibility," he said.

Caterpillar Financial, part of the international machinery manufacturer, is a major lender to the project. Julio Santana, Caterpillar's account manager for SeaFair, said, "The account's in good standing at this point, and I don't believe there to be any issues."

Lennie Bennett can be reached at 727 893-8293 or lennie@sptimes.com.