By Suzy Kridner
NEW SMYRNA BEACH - The vote wasn't unanimous but it was enough to give Wayne Heller hope that his dream to bring the Delta Queen steamboat here isn't over.
The New Smyrna Beach City Commission voted 3-2 last week to accept Mr. Heller's request for proposal and instructed city staff to proceed with lease negotiations for the North Causeway property where Mr. Heller wants to dock the Delta Queen.
Mr. Heller was encouraged by the city's action and went forward with the purchase of the Delta Queen from its owners, Xanterra, last Friday. He said he plans to take possession of the steamboat sometime before the end of the year. He said he was prohibited from revealing the purchase price.
The boat is docked in Chattanooga where it is an 88-room floating hotel and tourist attraction.
"Whether it stays in Chattanooga in the interim depends on the city of Chattanooga," Mr. Heller said last week.
"We will be talking to them. They have indicated they would hate to see the Delta Queen leave," he said. "I want to hear what they have to say." He plans to meet with them next week.
Agreeing on lease terms with New Smyrna Beach, and obtaining permits from regulatory agencies necessary to move the Delta Queen to city property on the Intracoastal Waterway, will take months, Mr. Heller said.
He quoted Winston Churchill, "Now this is not the end. It is not even the beginning of the end. But it is, perhaps, the end of the beginning."
"This is the beginning of a lot of work we have to do," Mr. Heller said.
What his attorney, Mark Watts, wanted to know at last week's City Commission meeting, "was the city significantly interested to open up a conversation?"
After meeting recently with the U.S. Corps of Engineers, Mr. Watts told the commissioners the boat's location would need to be shifted along the shoreline to the north and west of the existing dock so it would be further from the center of the main channel.
He also said arrangements could be worked out so the Marine Discovery Center could continue to use the dock and also with the city to use the parking lot for festival parking.
Other members of Mr. Heller's team also spoke to the city commission, including Dwight Durant and Paul Momberger of Zev Cohen and Associates and Shailesh Patel of Dredging and Marine Consulting.
Mr. Heller told the commissioners he has loved ships beginning at an early age and took a job with a cruise line after he graduated from Florida State University. In the '80s he and his family founded Cruises Only, selling it in 2000.
He took a trip on the Delta Queen "traveling on a piece of history," he told the commission.
He said while discussions were going on to bring the boat here, "out-of-state supporters of the Delta Queen mounted a strong campaign to convince New Smyrna Beach's City Commissioners, the state and federal authorities not to allow the ship to come to Florida."
Last week, Mr. Heller said, "I understand the passion of the people on steamboat.org, but there has been a lot of misinformation and we fully intend to preserve the boat in her current state, not destroy the historic integrity of the boat."
"We will paint and repair the boat but I won't knock down walls to make cabins bigger. That would destroy the historic integrity of the boat and we won't do that," he said.
Mr. Heller has a team handling the permitting - a large team with different specialties for the project, he said. "I'm more of a bigger picture guy. I'm the visionary."
City Commissioners had several questions for Mr. Heller, including where is the swimming pool going.
"We have a great beach here," he replied.
Vice Mayor Judy Reiker, who voted along with outgoing commissioner Lynne Plaskett against accepting Heller's request for proposal, said, "My only concern is the Delta Queen doesn't fit into the vision of the North Causeway."
Vice Mayor Reiker said it would change the city from a beach town to a destination and used the term "Disneyesque" to describe what may happen to the city.
Mayor Adam Barringer said after talking to a lot of people he can see the economic benefits for the city.