|By Amos Maki, The Commercial Appeal,
Memphis, Tenn.McClatchy-Tribune Regional News
July 20, 2012--The city of Memphis hopes to land a 360-foot-long boat called the Empress of the North to dock along the riverfront and convert to a floating hotel.
"We have submitted a proposal and we have not heard or seen anything to indicate we've been dropped" from consideration, said Mayor A C Wharton. "We did it because cities have to build on their strengths and not every city has a great waterfront like we do."
Memphis Housing and Community Development director Robert Lipscomb, said the Tampa, Fla.-based DeBartolo Group asked if the city would be interested in having the Empress.
"We're in the hunt right now," said Lipscomb. "You have nothing to lose by submitting a proposal."
Officials with DeBartolo did not immediately return a request for comment.
The Empress, a five-deck replica of a Mississippi riverboat, traveled the Pacific Northwest and Alaska, and has a somewhat checkered history.
Built in 2002, the boat debuted in 2003 and ran aground twice that year. It ran aground again in 2006, and in 2007 near Juneau, Alaska, when all of its 248 passengers had to abandon the ship. A National Transportation Safety Board inquiry found that an inexperienced employee was given control of the helm at night.
After its parent company suffered financial setbacks, the Empress was docked in Portland, Ore., in 2008, and is now in the custody of the United States Maritime Administration.
A few other cities are competing for the Empress, according to news reports. A story on TampaOnline said Tampa was a contender, and that backers of the project say that city would need to provide water, electricity and sewer lines to acquire the boat.
The report said San Francisco and the Port of San Pedro near Los Angeles also were interested in the vessel.
To land the American Queen, the 418-foot-long vessel that calls Memphis home port, the Wharton administration and City Council supported a $9 million loan that spurred a $31 million venture with the Great American Steamboat Co. The city made the 10-year loan, which will paid back through boarding and landing fees and other private sources, under a federal loan guarantee program.
If the Empress of the North were converted to a floating hotel, it would follow the path of the Delta Queen, now a floating hotel moored in Chattanooga. In 2008, the Delta Queen, named a National Historic Landmark in 1989, took a final cruise on the Mississippi after losing its exemption from the federal Safety of Life at Sea Act that prohibits wooden ships from carrying more than 49 passengers overnight.
A hotel in a paddlewheeler would tie in with other city-backed projects to enhance the banks of the Mississippi at Memphis.
On the southern end of the riverfront, between Tom Lee Park and the historic cobblestones, is the $42.5 million Beale Street Landing project, which includes a riverboat terminal, restaurant and park. The final piece of the project features two "islands" that will be placed in the water and a roughly four-acre green space with terraces sloping toward the river's edge.
On the northern end of the riverfront the city and Bass Pro Shops are converting the shuttered Pyramid arena into a retail and entertainment project, including a three-story interior hotel.
The city acquired the nearby Lone Star Industries property to create a green space connecting the site to the river and Memphis Cook Convention Center.
"(The Empress) ties in with everything we're doing along the riverfront," said Lipscomb.
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