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Gambling boat bid stirs old concerns

Without so much as a how-do-you-do, a new gambling boat company gets a rude awakening at a City Council meeting.

By MATTHEW WAITE

© St. Petersburg Times, published May 10, 2001


Without so much as a how-do-you-do, a new gambling boat company gets a rude awakening at a City Council meeting.

PORT RICHEY -- The attorney for Stardancer Casino Cruises went to the Port Richey City Council meeting on Tuesday night, ready to introduce the company and give the audience a preview of its plans.

A handshake and a hello he hardly received.

Before Lanny Rauer, the casino boat company's attorney, could get up and speak, the competition was before the council asking it not to give Stardancer necessary permits, and environmentalists were there to announce their concern over more boat traffic on the river.

Stardancer's arrival in town has unearthed tensions from people who remember when the first boat company, now named Paradise of Port Richey, came to town in 1995.

Longtime residents still fume over rules bending, controversies erupting on the council because one member was an employee of Paradise, and supposed secretive dealings between city leaders and the boat owners.

Now, in public and in private, residents and city officials are building defenses and researching options to be sure that either the city benefits or no boat comes.

On Tuesday night, some of those tensions came to the surface.

"Here we go again," said Fred Miller, a former council member. Miller said the city needed to be careful, and all discussions held in the open, not "down at a local bar."

Jimmy Carter, the former mayor who landed in the middle of one of the controversies when he and a former city manager asked for a $2 per passenger "donation" from Paradise in 1995, told the council they shouldn't shut the door to a new boat.

"Guys, don't give up on this thing," he said. "Let's encourage them. Let's approach it objectively."

Objectivity might be a tough order, with two companies competing over millions in gambling revenues and factions within the city plying their own agendas.

Since Stardancer arrived in April -- and long before the two companies will tangle over paying customers -- Paradise and Stardancer have been jockeying over public relations, permits and submerged land rights. Lawsuit threats have come out, and never materialized.

For now, Stardancer is planning a June start for cruises to their casino boat in international waters in the Gulf of Mexico.

On Tuesday, Rauer showed the council sketches of what his company plans to build on the Treadway Drive plot that used to be Joshua's Landing. The company wants a "Key West" style building for people to wait for the boats, and has already cleared out truckloads of junk from the property it intends to use as a parking lot.

"It's going to be a beautiful area," he said.

But merely plans have been enough to get people moving.

Larry Crow, Paradise's attorney, has twice been before the council, telling council members of arcane rules on submerged lands and asking the city to review if the new boat has to go through a lengthy and expensive development review, called a Development of Regional Impact, or DRI.

The city has withheld issuing Stardancer a business tax certificate, necessary for the company to open, and is waiting for City Attorney Paul Marino to decide if a DRI was needed.

That was news to Stardancer.

When called Wednesday, Sam Gray, Jr., the son of the company's president who is in charge of opening the Port Richey site, said he didn't know why the city hadn't given them the certificate. When told by the Times about Marino's review of DRI requirements, Gray was relieved, because when Stardancer opened an identical operation in Fernandina Beach, the state said they were exempt from DRIs.

"We anticipate no hurdles here," Gray said.

And, as several people pointed out to the council Tuesday night, the city didn't require Paradise to go through a DRI or other reviews when it came to town. Gray said all he wants from the city is equal treatment.

Stardancer officials were somewhat taken aback by their treatment before the council. Before Rauer could finish his presentation, Council member Joe Menicola had stopped him and said he wanted to see the casino boat issue on the agenda, not in the open to the public portion of Tuesday night's meeting.

But unless Stardancer needs a zoning change, Marino said, only the state and city Building Official Bill Sanders will have anything to do with permitting construction.

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