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A $10 million Project Will See the President, a Former Mississippi River Cruise Ship,
Morphed into a Floating Hotel and Conference Center on a Lake in St Elmo, Illinois

By Tony Reid, Herald & Review, Decatur, Ill.McClatchy-Tribune Regional News

Apr. 13, 2009 - ST. ELMO -- The President is going to pieces.

The question now is, can all the President's men put her back together again?

For gung-ho mega-movers such as Jeremy Patterson, it's a total no-brainer. So what if the President is a former Mississippi River cruise ship being shifted overland in so many pieces he's forgotten how many there are, exactly? Or that the 1,000-ton vessel, when fully assembled, occupies an area equivalent to five football fields stacked one on top of the other, its multidecks rising to a height of 65 feet and measuring 300 feet long and some 84 feet wide?

Most of the presidential chunks are now sitting in St. Elmo, of all places, awaiting the inflamed kiss of Patterson's magic welding torch as he and his crew put this mother of all metallic jigsaws back together again. Patterson owns Jeremy Patterson House Moving Inc. of Washington, Iowa, and last year shifted the largest building in the world yet moved by men, a condo in downtown Des Moines.

"I'm an aggressive person in life," says Patterson, 33, who doesn't let mega-moves intimidate him. "Most of what we do is small stuff (average-size family homes). We do the big stuff for the fun of it."

The President, however, was just too big to be hauled along the highway intact, hence its controlled disintegration while moored in its former port at Alton. Having cut it up for ease of transportation, Patterson's job now is to reassemble it on 20-acre Tower Lake in St. Elmo. That's the location for a $10 million project that will see the big boat morphed into a floating hotel and conference center, perhaps with a water park and other goodies to follow.

Allowing for delays caused by the stormy investment waters whipped up by the current recession, the riverboat is due to embark on its new suite life by summer 2010.

"OK, it's like a giant jigsaw puzzle now," says Patterson, who plans to start reconstruction within the next few weeks and claims you won't be able to see the joins when he's done. "It'll look brand-new," he added. "It'll look fabulous."

The man at the helm of this dream, President owner and Effingham businessman David Campbell, is a captain of industry blessed with a sense of optimism even more buoyant than Patterson's. He runs his own printing business but had longed to navigate a course both dramatic and different through the uncharted seas of entrepreneurship. When he found the President in 2004, Campbell knew he'd discovered the star that would guide him home.

Other people just think he's nuts. But facing the project's critics head-on, Campbell sounds like Christopher Columbus dismissing fears that he will sail right off the edge of the known world.

"The naysayers say it will never happen, that we'll never get it back together," says Campbell, 48, talking as he picks his way amid fresh-cut segments of his boat, some as big as a school bus and everything white-iced by a surprise spring snow shower.

"But once we get that hole dug -- the boat will be sited in a giant pit next to the lake, which then gets flooded -- and we start rebuilding it, they'll realize this project is really starting to come together."

The President wound up in St. Elmo because the city of Effingham, which several years ago had leadership that Campbell said lacked vision, didn't want it. A bunch of cities, including Danville and Vandalia, then clamored for the boat to head toward them, but it was little St. Elmo, pledging some $1 million toward infrastructure costs such as roads, water and sewer lines, that became the landlocked port of choice in 2008.

Due to be painted in an eye-catching white color scheme with red accents, the vessel will sit close by Interstate 70 and present itself to startled drivers like a surrealist vision.

"People are going to say 'What the heck is that?' says Ken Thomason, who does double duty as president of the St. Elmo Industrial Commission and the town's police chief.

"We hope it brings excitement and visitors from all over the world, because that's what we want. This is about the most exciting thing to happen in St. Elmo since forever."

The boat also will feature a museum to tell its sea shanty of a story, which has many chapters. Built in 1924 for the then fabulously expensive price of $417,000, it was named the Cincinnati and worked moving goods and occasional passengers, including President Hoover, on the Ohio River.

In 1933, it was sold to a St. Louis company that moved it to the Mississippi River and converted it to an excursion boat with a keel-up refit. Advertising of the time proclaimed it, "The new five deck luxury super steamer, biggest and finest on the Upper Mississippi."

Yet other advertising blurbs, which probably would need rewording for today's market, gushed: "The Wonder Ship of the Mississippi -- where life is gay, vivacious -- alive with exciting thrills -- with dancing and romancing."

Hundreds of passengers would eat, drink and be merry and then get up and boogey to bands that included performances from Louis Armstrong. In 1980, the President was reborn yet again, this time as America's first floating casino moored in New Orleans. By 2000, however, its luck had run out. Despite being registered as a National Historic Landmark -- or should be that watermark? -- it was sitting forlorn and disused until that man Campbell climbed aboard with lots of dollars and a dream.

Now it's full steam ahead, even though it won't be going anywhere. "We've searched the world over, and nobody has ever done anything like this before," says Campbell. "We've got something special here."

treid@herald-review.com|421-7977

ON TV

The story of the President and its piecemeal move will be the subject of the Discovery Channel show "Mega-Moves" later this year.

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To see more of Herald & Review, or to subscribe to the newspaper, go to http://www.herald-review.com

Copyright (c) 2009, Herald & Review, Decatur, Ill.

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