MARIETTA - Time may be running out to get the Delta Queen traveling the Ohio and other rivers again.
Legislation has been introduced in the U.S. Senate and House of Representatives to restore the exemption to the Safety of Life at Seas Act that allowed the Delta Queen to house overnight guests prior to its expiration in 2008. That would let the boat return to the routes that often brought it to Marietta - if a group of investors can purchase the vessel before other suitors that want to permanently turn it into a floating hotel.
"It's really a race against the other entities to see who can secure her in time," said Cornel Martin, president and CEO of DQSC Inc.
Spectators watch as the Delta Queen’s walkway is lifted off the Ohio River Levee during a stop in Marietta in 2008. (File Photo)
The Delta Queen has been moored since 2009 in Chattanooga, Tenn., as a floating hotel, operated by Randy and Leah Ann Ingram, who are partnering with Martin and others in the DQSC venture. But Martin said the hotel setup does not generate enough revenue to keep up with the vessel's maintenance, especially since that work includes keeping its engines operational.
"It really either has to be one or the other," he said.
Martin said he understands there are two other groups interested in the boat, one that would take it to the East Coast and one to the West. Either way, they would likely strip out the engines to make it a permanent hotel, he said.
Published reports also indicate interest in keeping it in Chattanooga or moving the boat to Louisville, Ky.
Previous Delta Queen owner Ambassadors International Inc. declared bankruptcy in 2011, and its assets were purchased by Colorado-based Xanterra Parks & Resorts. A message seeking comment from the company was not returned Thursday.
DQSC is working to recruit investors willing to contribute $100,000 to $500,000 or more toward the purchase of the vessel. Obtaining the exemption to the Safety of Life at Seas Act would give the group assurance that it could once again house overnight guests and return to its cruising days.
Under the law, boats with wooden superstructures are considered potential fire risks and are not allowed to carry more than 49 passengers overnight. The Delta Queen can hold 176.
Supporters of the Queen argued the law should not apply to it, since the boat travels on rivers and is never more than a mile from shore. Beginning in 1966, the vessel received nine exemptions.
Martin worked on some of those after he was engaged by the Delta Queen Steamboat Co. in 1993 to handle government relations. He was not working with Ambassadors when a 10th exemption was not granted in 2008.
Legislation resurrecting the exemption is being sponsored by both of Ohio's senators - Democrat Sherrod Brown and Republican Rob Portman.
"The Delta Queen's legacy is rooted in Cincinnati, and the city should play a role in her future," Brown said in a recent news release. "More than just a treasured historic landmark, restoration of this ship would pump money back into Ohio River towns like Marietta."
Portman, a native of Cincinnati, agreed. "This legislation is about bringing this historic boat back to my hometown of Cincinnati and boosting jobs and tourism along the Ohio River during this time of economic uncertainty, all at no cost to the taxpayer," he said in the release.