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  1. #1
    Join Date
    Jan 2009
    Southern California

    Default Update from Chattanooga

    Update from Chattanooga

    While checking out a conference in the "Scenic City" this past weekend, I had some spare hours to visit the Delta Queen. Although I didn't spend a night on board (she was fully booked!), I was cordially invited to visit, and compare her current situation with my pre-hotel memories. While many of you cruised earlier and more often, my experience on the Delta Queen includes a trio of one week cruises ('05, '06 and '07) on the lower Mississippi. Here is what I observed in Chattanooga.

    First: a description of the setting. Chattanooga is a wonderful temporary home for the Delta Queen---a far better place than other docking points I've experienced (which include Memphis, New Orleans, Vicksburg, Baton Rouge and Natchez). This particular bend in the Tennessee River might be the best possible place for our favorite overnight steam sternwheeler to ride out the current situation. The DQ's berth is at the city's river park: a safe-at-all-hours place where the city has a shiny-new outdoor activities center and an antique carousel. At the far side of this beautiful park is a trendy neighborhood with restaurants that feature outdoor dining and/or live music. A few yards from where the DQ is tethered is Chattanooga's oldest river bridge. Too weak and narrow for modern traffic, the "retired" 2-lane bridge has traded its asphalt roadbed for wooden planking. As a result, this boardwalk above the water feels like a double-ended ocean pier. Nearly a mile long, the best reason to cross "America's longest bicycle and pedestrian bridge" is to reach downtown Chattanooga! Within 3-4 blocks of the "city" side of the bridge are some of the city's finest points of interest (arts district, aquarium, museum and info center) plus a free electric shuttle bus that runs a two mile city loop from dawn until after midnight. By using the "boardwalk" and connecting to the free bus you can reach dozens of Chattanooga's finest attractions and restaurants without driving, parking, or digging for cab-fare. If you're too tired for the return walk across the bridge, there's a cheap and frequent water taxi that that stops right at the DQ. While some hotel guests have complained that parking is too distant and expensive, it seems clear to me that these "whiners" haven't bothered to discover a better alternative. My advice? Enjoy a carefree car-free stay!

    Second: the mechanical condition of the boat. Like many of you, I've been worried about the DQ's lack of exercise. Can the old lady stay fit and trim while "confined" and cared for by lubbers? Actually, yes. Between his other duties I spent some time with Johnny McGee, the full-time engineer who lives aboard and works with volunteers to keep the Queen ready for her anticipated return to the river. When I asked him how long would it take, is answer was "Give me 24 hours!" Johnny also explained the water and power hook-ups. While the DQ gets her fresh water from a city hookup, this simply fills the same tanks she used while cruising. "I still need to get the water from the tanks to the faucets" says Johnny. Similarly, because the city's electrical hook-up doesn't supply enough "juice," Johnny added "I need to run one of the generators to carry the load." While the boat's generators run on diesel (supplied weekly), what about the boilers? Instead of using the tar-like bunker oil, the DQ's boilers are currently fueled by natural gas. The gas heated boilers supply heat and hot water for the hotel and restaurant, low-pressure steam for calliope concerts. If she returns to cruising, cheaper tar-like bunker oil will again be used instead of the pricier natural gas.

    Third: the overall condition of the boat. The DQ has probably always been a mixed bag of "just fixed" and "work needed." While the problem areas will always be easier to spot, my inspection reassured me that the vessel is being well maintained. I even toured the galley and back-stage; and couldn't find any obvious signs of distress or neglect. To me, the Delta Queen looked neither worse nor better than she did while cruising 3-5 years ago.

    Fourth: The hotel. When I attempted to book space at the Delta Queen Hotel a few months ago, I finally gave up in disgust. The hotel, now open about 15 months, got off to a very rocky start. Originally, three couples were involved in the management. The resulting "committee" was indecisive. As a result, the poorly staffed and managed hotel suffered from low occupancy and poor reviews. This has changed. Two couples have been bought out, and are no longer around. The remaining couple appears to be quite capable --- and fully dedicated. Every staff member I met was knowledgable, friendly and competent. The hotel guests I talked to were all quite happy.

    Fifth: Who owns the Queen? The Delta Queen is still owned Ambassadors International (or AMIE), the corporation that acquired her in 2006 as part of a 3-boat purchase. AMIE bought the Delta Queen, Mississippi Queen and American Queen as part of a strategy to create an inland waters cruise monopoly. Most of their fleet (which eventually grew to include seven inland vessels) has since been sold or surrendered to lien-holders. The Delta Queen is wholly-owned, and has been up for sale for the past 2.5 years. In the meantime the revocable lease to the hotel operators brings in needed revenue while keeping her safe and maintained for possible future cruising.

    Fifth: A return to cruising? While many in this forum will want to continue to disparage the Delta Queen's past owners and management, (or wrongly blame the Coast Guard or unions), these postings won't be constructive or helpful. Now that Ambassadors International has had a 100% change of board-members and management, and the new management has lowered the asking price of the Delta Queen to an amount that will allow a new owner to project a profit from overnight cruises, the only major obstacle that prevents the DQ's return to service is the lack of congressional approval (which trumps Coast Guard regulations). The only thing standing in the way of congressional approval is a current Chairman of the U.S. Congressional Committee of Transportation and Infrastructure. This one individual has refused to allow the Delta Queen a place on his committee's agenda. While this forum has had lots of "threads" discussing various political actions, all involved unsuccessful attempts to get around one stubborn person (Congressman James Oberstar) who has determined that the Delta Queen will not receive a fair hearing.

    Sixth: Fresh wind from a new quarter? It's instructive to remember that the DQ's political problem arose overnight four Novembers ago when citizens who were frustrated or angry with the U.S. President (who was not up for election) turned out in large numbers to vote against the members of his party. When the balance of power in the Senate and House of Representatives switched from Republican to Democrat, every Congressional Committee received a new Chairman. This is how James Oberstar (a Democrat from Minnesota) obtained the chairmanship that has allowed him to "veto" all attempts to re-permit the Delta Queen's operation as a cruise ship. Today, nearly four years later, pollsters are measuring the same sort of voter frustration in the opposite direction.

    While Mr. Oberstar is in no danger of losing the election in his liberal district, if Republicans win back the seats they lost in 2006 Oberstar will lose his Committee chairmanship. As of today, it is easy to imagine that the Delta Queen will soon be able to get the Congressional hearing that she has been denied for the past four years. If this happens, it seems likely that a seventh 5-7 year exemption for the Delta Queen WILL be granted without a great deal of fuss or fanfare. In the meantime, people who don't wish to derail the Delta Queen's return to cruising should NOT revisit past problems (or bring up new ones) that might dissuade an optimistic company or individual from purchasing the Delta Queen from AMIE---who has become a motivated seller.

    Bill McCready

    PS: Who am I and what do I know? Please refer to my previous series of "optimistic" posts that appeared in early 2009.
    Last edited by Franz Neumeier; 09-17-2010 at 01:14 PM.

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