Casino ship hits inspection snag

The Casino Royale, which was set to open this month, delays its launch and puts most workers on unpaid leave.

Published August 22, 2006

Operators postponed plans to launch a casino ship off Pinellas County and put most of its 225 employees on unpaid leave Monday after a paperwork glitch held up its certification to carry passengers.

The Casino Royale, a 400-foot-long former cruise ship, was set to open this month in the gulf, with shuttle craft carrying customers from Treasure Island and back.

But the U.S. Coast Guard discovered last week that the ship's former owners had not filed proper evacuation and fire prevention plans, said Lt. Cmdr. Kevin Oditt, the Coast Guard's inspection chief in Tampa.

It could take four to six weeks for Coast Guard officials to review updated documents submitted by the company and finish their inspection, he said.

"It's a black eye," said Nigel White, president of Ocean's 21 LLC, the ship's operator. Company officials hope the delay is temporary and remain "very confident in our business plan," he said.

Casino Royale would be among Florida's largest floating casinos, which offer Las Vegas-style gambling just outside state waters. The ship will have more than 500 slot machines, 45 gaming tables, a poker room and eventually a sports wagering lounge, the company said.

The company's game plan sounds a lot like the one followed by Titan Cruise Lines with the Ocean Jewel of St. Petersburg. Owned by a group of Chicago-area businessmen, Titan had a rough, yearlong ride before landing in bankruptcy.

Shuttle craft carrying gamblers to the Ocean Jewel struck the bridge over John's Pass. Customers were stuck on the ship for hours when weather got too stormy for shuttles to operate.

In January, Yamashiro Financial Services of Pasadena, Calif., bought the Ocean Jewel and other Titan assets in bankruptcy court for $7.25-million. The vessel is undergoing repairs in the Dominican Republic, White said.

Yamashiro Financial earlier purchased the St. Tropez, which sailed as a casino ship from Fort Lauderdale until its owners went bankrupt last year. Renamed Casino Royale, the ship has been docked at the Port of Tampa since April for repairs and an interior makeover.

Last month, the ship's owner was fined when U.S. Customs and Border Protection found foreign workers on board had overstayed their visas, said Joseph Smagowicz, an agency spokesman.

He declined to give details. But court documents filed by the vessel's shipping agent estimated the fine at nearly $86,000 for visa violations involving 26 workers. The fine can be appealed or reduced.

Shipping agent Savage Shipping obtained a court order July 18 authorizing U.S. marshals to seize the Casino Royale for payment of $158,000 in overdue bills by the ship's owner and its maritime operator. Before that happened, the two sides settled and the suit was dropped.

White called the lawsuit a routine dispute with a vendor, but acknowledged that delays getting the ship ready to sail have caused financial overruns.

The company had to put all but 50 of its 225 employees on unpaid leave Monday to protect the business, White said. They will continue to receive standard benefits, he said. The company says it will employ 525 people when Casino Royale begins operating.

Residents of beach communities near the John's Pass Bridge have been concerned that the ship's shuttle vessels could further snarl traffic.

With the bridge under construction, only one lane is open in each direction.

Drivers already slow to a crawl when traffic is heavy and worry it will only get worse with the bridge opening for the shuttles. The company says it's looking for smaller vessels that can fit under the bridge.

Steve Huettel can be reached at huettel@sptimes.com or 813 226-3384. Paul Swider can be reached at swider@sptimes.com or (727) 892-2271.