Casino operator hopes for better luck
By KATHERINE GAZELLA and JULIE CHURCH
© St. Petersburg Times,
TARPON SPRINGS -- In a five-year career in maritime gambling, Ken Whitcomb has been involved with three casino boats that sailed out of the Sponge Docks.
State law enforcement agents shut one down. A second sought protection from creditors under federal bankruptcy laws and went out of business. The third is the Victori, which Whitcomb acknowledges has had "an awful long run of suspiciously bad luck."
But this week, equipped with a fresh Coast Guard certification, engine repairs and plans for an all-male revue, Whitcomb hopes to see a turnaround.
"We're looking at (this) week as a whole new start," he said.
Whitcomb, 58, of Palm Harbor got the idea to run a casino boat from his late wife, Teri, an avid gambler who fancied craps tables. They would operate a boat, have constant access to craps and blackjack tables and make some money along the way.
On and off, the plan worked. The Whitcombs were involved in two casino boat ventures in Tarpon Springs in recent years, and they enjoyed it while the businesses were operating. But both boats eventually were shut down.
Whitcomb decided to try his hand with a third boat, first with his wife's help and later in her memory. Mrs. Whitcomb died in January after a battle with breast cancer, and Whitcomb continued with the plan to bring another boat to town.
Enter the Victori, a multilevel casino boat that once operated in South Carolina. If everything went according to plan, the boat would be docked at the former home of the other two boats, at sponge merchant George Billiris' property along the Sponge Docks. The Victori needed some work, but Whitcomb figured he could make a go of it.
"It's one of the nicer casinos around. None of the rest can hold a candle to it," said Whitcomb, president of Athena Cruises, the local name for Ward Casino Cruises.
Whitcomb runs the company along with Ernest Ward, who founded Ward Casinos. The company is backed financially by an unidentified investor from New Jersey.
From day one, Ward Casino's efforts to offer gambling cruises on the Victori have been problematic. First, the boat was tied up at a Tampa dry dock while the company awaited a revised certification from the Coast Guard.
The boat's hull and engines are more than 20 years old, Whitcomb said, and the Victori has had trouble with the engines. Whitcomb also had to replace most of the slot machines on board.
Whitcomb, who is retired from the Army and once ran a nuclear power consulting company in New Jersey, said the boat was in good condition when he first saw it in Jacksonville. But it was leased to a company in Miami before he got it, and it acquired some of the blemishes there, he said.
Bad luck struck the boat on its inaugural cruise June 1. After six months of drought, rain poured down on the Victori, which didn't help draw a crowd. Whitcomb began to wonder if the boat was cursed.
Because of a problem with the power connection at the dock, the Victori crew was forced to use a generator to power the ship while in port. When they ran the generator, the city cited the ship for a noise violation.
The city also threatened to cite the company for violating another ordinance. In Tarpon Springs, offshore tour vessels are not allowed to dock within 1,500 feet of one another, an ordinance that would prevent the Victori from using its slot at the Sponge Docks.
"We had an awful long run of suspiciously bad luck," Whitcomb said. "You start getting paranoid after a while."
Since the city notified Ward Casinos that it was in violation of the ordinance last month, Whitcomb sought to change the Coast Guard Certificate of Inspection to reflect the boat's capacity as 24 crew and 100 passengers.
Under city guidelines, a boat with a capacity of 124 or less is not considered an offshore tour vessel, and therefore is not bound by the 1,500-foot rule. Whitcomb received the new certificate last week.
It appears that the certification will allow the Victori to operate out of the dock near Santorini restaurant, said Walter Fufidio, the city's director of planning and zoning. He said he will consult with City Attorney John Hubbard and other city officials before deciding if the company is in compliance.
The 124-person figure "would put them under the definition and exempt them," Fufidio said. They appear to have "done what they need to do, at least initially," he said.
Most casino boats sail with more than 150 passengers, Whitcomb said. Still, he said, he thinks the company can make money as long as the boat sails regularly.
Even if the conflict with the city is solved, the cruise line still has other things to worry about. Athena Cruises recently ran into another adversary: a man known to local casino boat operators as "Bud Light Bob."
Bob Bowman, 56, a retired trucking company owner and frequent casino boat gambler, had a string of luck at the craps tables on the Victori two nights in a row last month. He won a total of $28,069, but has only been paid $18,069 as of late Friday afternoon. The rest has been promised to him in the form of an IOU.
After several attempts to contact the boat's owners to no avail, Bowman has sought the advice of a lawyer.
Whitcomb insists that the problem in paying Bowman is not a cash flow problem, but rather a paperwork issue.
He said he is waiting for some forms from U.S. Customs and the Internal Revenue Service. However, when contacted by the St. Petersburg Times, officials at both agencies said they saw no reason paperwork would be holding up the payment.
While many passengers have given the boat solid reviews, the Victori is not universally popular among merchants along the Sponge Docks. Some have criticized the presence of a casino boat at the docks, saying that the boat doesn't fit in with the historical ambience of the area and that it does not help other businesses.
Billiris, who owns the property, said he thinks people need to give the boat a chance and that the boat's operators have done everything the city has asked of them.
Now, he said, "let the boys go to work."
Billiris, who is married to City Commissioner Beverley Billiris, predicted the boat will be a good addition to the Sponge Docks, once it operates regularly and goes ahead with a planned red, white and blue paint job.
"You can do a lot with lipstick," he said.
Whitcomb and Billiris previously had a business relationship when the Magic Mermaid and Excalibur casino boats leased the space at the dock along Dodecanese Boulevard. The Florida Department of Law Enforcement shut down the Mermaid in 1998 for allowing passengers to gamble before the boat reached international waters. The company behind the Excalibur, Camelot Casino Cruises, filed for protection from its creditors under Chapter 11 of the federal bankruptcy code after an investor pulled out. Whitcomb was involved with both companies.
The Victori hasn't gone to sea for a couple of weeks. Whitcomb is waiting on parts for the engine, and he plans to take the boat out again beginning Wednesday.
As further evidence of the boat's bad luck, Whitcomb pointed out that the boat has missed several potentially lucrative holidays. The boat wasn't ready to take cruises on Memorial Day, and it missed Father's Day and the Fourth of July because of mechanical trouble.
He sees Wednesday as a turning point for the boat, a chance to get a fresh start. An all-male revue is scheduled for that day.
Whitcomb said the Victori again will offer cruises once on Sundays and twice on all other days.
"The brand-new Victori," Whitcomb said. "We have to turn the corner here."
- Staff writer Katherine Gazella can be reached at (727) 445-4182. Staff writer Julie Church can be reached at (727) 445-4229.
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