By Suzy Kridner
NEW SMYRNA BEACH - Businessman Wayne Heller's dream to purchase the Delta Queen steamboat and dock it here as a hotel is moving closer to reality.
"I'm very close to purchasing the Delta Queen," Mr. Heller said this week.
He is continuing negotiations with the steamboat's owner, Xterra, and is hoping to move up the closing date.
Mr. Heller is working to complete the purchase of the steamboat, built in 1927, after his proposal was the only one received by the city to lease a five-acre waterfront site on the North Causeway.
The property includes a dock on the Indian River where the 285-foot Delta Queen can be moored and become a floating hotel and tourist attraction, like it is currently in Chattanooga, Tenn.
Mr. Heller, who has presented his plans before the City Commission several times in recent months, said he "likes to take old things, keep them charming and make them better. And I will do that with the Delta Queen."
The owner of the Riverview Hotel and Spa here also owns the Spring Garden Ranch in DeLeon Springs. The ranch is a winter home for harness racing horses and has a track for racing and a restaurant.
While he hopes to finalize the purchase as soon as possible, he still has to satisfy city officials and governmental agencies such as the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, the Florida Inland Navigation District and the state Department of Environmental Protection.
Since docking the boat is considered a "nonwater dependent use," the Florida Cabinet also will have to give its approval, Mr. Heller said. "That looks positive."
As the only proposal submitted for the property, Mr. Heller said he is hoping city commissioners will expedite the approval process.
"I'm hoping to get commission approval as early as August," he said, so a lease can be completed with the city in early September.
The proposal to lease the land to dock the Delta Queen is currently expected to be on the agenda for the Sept. 11 City Commission meeting.
City Manager Pam Brangaccio said in an email that the proposer on Sept. 11 would present to City Commission "his current proposal, which should include an update on permits required, timeframe, lease payment offered" and other matters.
While permits will be needed eventually from the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers and others, Mr. Heller said those permits can come after he has negotiated a lease with the city for the property.
"I felt like this has always been about a choice whether or not the elected officials want to bring the Delta Queen here because it's an attraction and will benefit the whole business community," Mr. Heller said. "I felt we had the best proposal for the site."
He said he won't be able to move the boat without all the permits in place.
"You have to make sure that you comply with all the regulatory agencies before you can dock," Mr. Heller said.
"The lease can say that in order to dock in December, we have all the permits needed from the Department of Environmental Protection and others."
Once the steamboat arrives here, he plans to hire 100 people to staff the floating hotel.
"I want to bring business to the community, increase the tax base and create jobs," Mr. Heller said.
"The Delta Queen will add to the historic charm and character of the city."
"It will be delivered to us in good shape and ready to accept hookups," he said.
Enroute to New Smyrna Beach from Chattanooga, the boat will stop in drydock to have its hull painted for salt water, Mr. Heller said.
"It hasn't had the care and attention it needed in the last few years," Mr. Heller said. "That's why we wanted to get it under our control as soon as possible."
"The air conditioning needs to be overhauled, and the boat needs to be brought up to our standards here in Florida."
"The best thing to do is wrap this up as soon as possible."