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Team works to get 25-story dreamboat afloat

From modest offices in Palm Harbor may spring a nearly mile-long ocean-going home for 50,000.

By ROBERT FARLEY

© St. Petersburg Times, published July 2, 2000


PALM HARBOR -- The size and boldness of Norm Nixon's plan for a city at sea takes a moment to digest.

At nearly a mile long and 750 feet wide, the Freedom Ship would dwarf the largest vessels on the seas today.

And consider these eye-popping accouterments: 25 decks, three casinos, three hotels, 15,000 condos, 50,000 full-time residents, a hospital, schools for grades kindergarten though college and 200 acres of recreation space.

Pause for smirk.

It's okay, Nixon and his people are used to it.

The ship's director of marketing, Roger Gooch, said he's talked to people about the project for more than a year, and it usually takes some time to win acceptance.

Although Nixon, a Sarasota engineer, and his cohorts have been traveling the globe -- searching for potential investors and a suitable place to build the ship -- the operation's home port is none other than Palm Harbor.

Freedom Ship's modest headquarters are tucked unobtrusively between Rum Runners and Creative Edge Design Inc. on the first floor of the Palm Harbor Key West Center at Alt. U.S. 19 and Alderman Road.

From these offices, Gooch and Peter Z. Banas, director of security, field phone calls from journalists all over the globe.

The lobby is adorned with mirrors fashioned like portals, a 12-foot model of the Freedom Ship and a map of the world with lights highlighting the ship's proposed two-year, globe-circling route.

Farther back are a few offices filled with drawings, private stock offerings and newspaper clippings.

It is a far cry from the locale of their former digs above the Columbia Restaurant in Sarasota's tony St. Armand's Circle. But then, said Nixon, the goals were different. Then, the Freedom Ship's principals were trying to drum up some attention with an international audience. They have since proved there is interest in the project, Nixon said, and the Palm Harbor location was selected about six months ago to accommodate the office's two main employees, Gooch, of Clearwater, and Banas, of Palm Harbor.

Gooch said he fields media calls daily, witnessed by his ease in dropping sound bites such as "a floating city for the new millennium."

After journalists and prospective residents of the ship get past the bigness questions, Gooch said, they inevitably turn to topic No. 2: "When do you start construction?"

As it has been from day one, the answer to that lies with investors. The plan is to secure enough money from private investors to start construction and then go public with stock.

Ultimately, the ship is projected to cost $9-billion.

"That's billion with a B," Gooch says.

And although the big investor needed to get things started has yet to be signed, Gooch said he is confident that should happen soon.

Perhaps more important, Gooch said, the Freedom Ship's creators are in the final stages of closing a deal to lease 200 to 300 acres near a Honduran naval base. There, they plan to build a shipyard and assemble the ship.

Cheap labor, year-round good weather, proximity to the United States and a deep-water protected bay were the area's biggest selling points.

And because of the devastation from Hurricane Mitch, Honduras is eligible for increased financing through the U.S. import-export bank system.

"We've come a long way and we're ready to jump off and start construction," Gooch said. "We're anxious to get down there and get started."

Although many people are understandably skeptical about the feasibility of constructing such a massive vessel, the small team of engineers who have worked on its design say its strength is its simplicity.

Essentially, the vessel will be a huge, flat-bottomed barge with a 25-story superstructure on top, Gooch explained.

The base will be made of 600 airtight steel cells bolted together. While the barge-like design would lead to huge construction savings, the trade-off is speed: just 10 knots.

"This thing is not sleek," Gooch said.

But then, he said, it doesn't need to be. The itinerary calls for a slow, two-year, endless-summer circumnavigation of the globe.

The ship will remain stationary for a week at a time, with an expected 20,000 visitors boarding each day to hit the casinos, shop in the world's largest duty-free mall and take in the spectacle of the Freedom Ship.

The ship will never get closer than 15 miles from shore, staying always in international waters. Boats and commuter aircraft will ferry people back and forth to the mainland.

There are myriad other details to work out, Gooch said, ranging from grocery stores to barber shops, almost all of which will be privately run.

"It's like putting the city of Clearwater on a ship," Gooch said.

Banas, a retired FBI agent, will oversee a security force of 2,000.

The Freedom Ship will not be its own country. Its residents will remain citizens of their home country and, therefore, continue to be subject to their nation's taxes. Residents are expected to come from all over the globe, though the greatest interest so far has come from Europe and Australia.

"This is a global project," Gooch said. "It will be a multicultural environment."

In the last year, Freedom Ship employees have been meeting with potential investors, enhancing the Web site (www.freedomship.com) -- which now averages 1,600 hits a day -- and doing media interviews. More recently, Freedom Ship employees have begun preliminary discussions with Nova Southeastern University to create a university on board.

But the main focus remains convincing people they are for real and trying to secure large investors to get the project under way. The thinking is that once people can see construction, others will be more comfortable investing in it.

"I'm disappointed we couldn't line up the money faster," Nixon said.

One of the biggest challenges, Nixon said, is sifting through the reams of con artists who have emerged offering to finance the project.

But sales of condominiums on the ship have been brisk, Gooch said, with about 15 percent, or $50-million worth, already spoken for. The condos cost from $121,000 to $7.2-million, plus a monthly maintenance fee. Those are the prebuilt prices. The cost is expected to rise dramatically once the ship is built.

"Right now, we have more buyers than we can handle," Nixon said. "We have proven we've got the interest in this."

In fact, Nixon already is talking about the possibility of building four more.

"After one becomes a reality, it removes the skepticism of building a floating city," Gooch said.

Although Freedom Ship's principals plan to employ 15,000 people to build the ship and to hire a permanent crew of 5,000, the operation now has just a half-dozen full-time employees.

Gooch, a former insurance company executive, and Banas hold down the Palm Harbor office. Both were retired and are working for free with the promise of a back-end payoff.

But it's not all about money, Gooch said.

"More than anything," Gooch said, "we want to build this ship."

Nixon, too, sees an astronomical profit potential, but for him it's the culmination of an engineering career.

"He's sincere," Gooch said of Nixon. "This is not a scam for money. It's real."

Like Gooch and Banas, Nixon plans to live on board, along with his wife and two daughters, ages 8 and 12.

"We're not a bunch of guys with just dreams," Nixon said. "We know what we're doing."

"It's going to happen," he said.

- Robert Farley can be reached at (727) 445-4185 or at farley@sptimes.com.

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