If Cornel Martin and his team of riverboat enthusiasts have their way, the Delta Queen will soon leave retirement and return to a life of cruising Midwestern waterways.
All that stands in their path is an act of Congress and $10 million.
Martin, who once worked as an executive for the original Delta Queen Steamboat Co., is leading the effort that could see the boat return to the Mississippi River, where it once offered overnight cruises.
Until recently, the 1920s-era paddlewheeler was serving as a floating hotel in Chattanooga, Tenn. But that ended in January after severe winter weather damaged it and knocked it out of commission.
And unless the group’s efforts are successful, the vessel’s future appears dim with no money for upkeep.
“I’m concerned it won’t survive another winter in Chattanooga. I think this is it,” said Martin, who was in St. Louis on Thursday seeking support and investment in their company, DQSC LLC.
From the nation’s lawmakers, the riverboat’s supporters need an exemption from a federal law prohibiting overnight excursions on wooden vessels.
It was a failure, in 2008, to gain this exemption to the Safety of Life at Sea Act that ended the cruising life of the Queen, built in 1926 and registered as a National Historic Landmark.
After 40 years of exemptions, the boat ran into trouble when a House transportation committee decided to block it, calling the Delta Queen a fire hazard. With no exemption, the 285-foot-long boat was forced to stop cruising — it’s too big to economically operate as a day cruiser — and begin a new life as a hotel with its 88 cabins.
Martin is optimistic about the group’s chances of regaining the exemption.
Last year, a piece of legislation providing a new exemption — through 2028 — sailed through the House and is currently under consideration in the Senate.
For now, he said, supporters are holding off on finishing the push until the financial aspects of the plan are taken care of.
“We’re kind of holding the exemption back until we put all the money pieces together,” he said.
The money will come from a combination of private investment and loans financed through the Small Business Administration. Martin would not say how far the group is from hitting the $9.6 million needed to buy and refurbish the boat and set up operations.
But if things go as hoped, the boat will be back in the river by next summer, with cruises ranging from three to 10 days and prices averaging around $350 a night. The Queen, with room for 176 passengers, would travel among various cities in the Mississippi River and Ohio River waterways.
That would put it in competition against the larger Memphis, Tenn.-based American Queen, built in 1995 with 222 rooms capable of carrying more than 400 passengers.
The Delta Queen group is considering St. Louis for its home port and headquarters, which could bring as many as 150 boat jobs and 21 corporate jobs with $4 million in annual wages. The group said the city is offering to help with the small business loans and is discussing tax incentives and rebates.
Mayor Francis Slay’s spokeswoman, Maggie Crane, confirmed that talks have taken place with the Delta Queen group and that the city is interested in helping to bring the boat and the headquarters to St. Louis.
“It really goes along well with everything that’s going on at the riverfront right now,” Crane said. “We think it’s a valuable investment. We’ll be opening our toolbox to help them identify potential funding.”
But she said there has been no specific dollar amount assigned to potential incentives.
If the Queen does makes its way to St. Louis, it would reverse a trend that’s seen the riverfront largely abandoned by passenger steamers.
The latest to leave was the Admiral. The iconic art-deco boat — it last operated as a casino — ended its long decline in 2010 after being shuttered and sold. The boat stopped cruising after a 1979 Coast Guard inspection revealed a damaged hull.
There is, of course, a small link to the city’s earlier riverboat culture through the Becky Thatcher and Tom Sawyer, a pair of smaller riverboats owned by Metro, that offer hourly and dinner cruises departing from the Gateway Arch.