As Davenport races against the clock to build a facility that can welcome Viking River Cruises next year, the solution already might be anchored to the riverfront.
Two men with some authority over the riverfront tout a barge that has connected gambling boats to the shore for 25 years as the answer while talks over spending an unknown sum of taxpayer money on a permanent pier have stalled at the City Council.
“I have been in favor of finding a way to retain the casino landing barge from the day we knew the casino boat was leaving,” said Alderman Bill Boom, whose 3rd Ward includes the downtown riverfront. “This was before we even knew about a Viking opportunity.”
Bill Ashton, a member of the Davenport Levee Improvement Commission, which supervises the city’s waterfront, thinks the city ought to buy the barge from Rhythm City Casino, which is expected to leave the riverfront this year.
“I always thought when the casino was going to move to a land-based casino, in those negotiations, the city should ask for the guest service barge and ramps,” Ashton said. “Today, I would think they could negotiate with (Rhythm City CEO Dan) Kehl a pretty good agreement to get that.”
The barge is for sale, but no one in the city has made an offer to buy it, Rhythm City Casino general manager Mo Hyder said.
Mayor Frank Klipsch, in his second month in office since beating Bill Gluba in the November election, said he is waiting to hear details from Viking officials before pursuing any plan.
Viking announced in February 2015 it would launch Mississippi River cruises beginning in 2017, and boats would dock in cities such as Davenport. A Viking representative followed up a month later with a tour of the Quad-Cities.
Gluba said he encouraged Viking to choose Davenport and touted the city’s partnership with the global cruise giant for the remainder of his time as mayor.
The City Council followed suit by earmarking $500,000 in the current fiscal year’s budget for RiverVision, a plan to replace nine acres of casino parking lot with green space and a riverfront that features a pier for Viking and other passenger vessels.
There never was any doubt with the former mayor that Viking excursion boats eventually would dock at the foot of Main Street.
Doubt was raised at a recent Levee Improvement Commission meeting after Klipsch took over. The mayor raised the issue of the Viking dock and added, “if it comes to fruition.”
Commissioner Karl Rhomberg asked if there was doubt as to whether Viking was coming to Davenport.
“No one has ever seen anything in writing about anything,” Klipsch said during the meeting. “It is strictly anecdotal.”
The $500,000 still is available to be spent, said Clay Merritt, public works management analyst.
Davenport currently does not have a signed contract with Viking, both Klipsch and Interim City Administrator Corri Spiegel said. But neither does Hannibal, Mo., Fort Madison, Iowa, Dubuque, Iowa, and La Crosse, Wis., other upper Mississippi River towns that Viking also announced as future ports of call.
The lack of an agreement has not hindered Hannibal, Dubuque and La Crosse from moving forward with plans to accommodate Viking, according to officials in those communities. Fort Madison still is early in the planning stages, its city manager said.
A spokesman for Viking said he has no new information to share.
“The problem for Davenport is that it has to have something to meet Viking’s schedule,” Ashton said at the January Levee Improvement Commission meeting.
That something just might be the old casino landing barge.
Ashton is familiar with the barge, because it was his hands that actually helped to weld two barges together into a big floating plank to serve The President, one of the first riverboat casinos in the Midwest, when it opened in 1991. A guest service facility with a restaurant, bathrooms and offices was built on top, including electrical, gas and sewage disposal.
“Everything Viking needs is sitting right on top of those barges,” Ashton, a professional engineer since 1966, told the Quad-City Times.
The casino barge might have caught the attention of the city’s hired consultant.
Davenport hired SmithGroup JJR of Madison, Wis., in the fall to study alternate sites after backing away from selecting a firm to design a new dock downtown. Ashton has worked with SmithGroup before, and he said someone in the firm told him recently that it may recommend to the city using the casino barge for Viking, at least on a temporary basis.
“I don’t know where the City Council is, but from my own professional discussions with JJR on other subjects, that’s what I think JJR is recommending,” Ashton said. “From my own knowledge of the site and the timing required, in my mind that makes sense. And they won’t have to make a big investment today to get Viking there.”