April 30, 2010
By Kellie Patrick Gates
A new riverboat cruise is coming to Philadelphia this fall.
Called the Philadelphia Belle, the boat will hold more than 1,000 people for dinner and sightseeing cruises. Patrons will board at Market Street and travel about four miles south to the Navy Yard and two or three miles north of Market to somewhere past the Ben Franklin Bridge.
The Delaware River Waterfront Corporation approved a licensing agreement with Philadelphia Paddleboat LLC at its Friday morning meeting. Philadelphia Paddleboat will pay the DRWC about $200,000 per year, with a 3 percent increase each year, said DRWC Vice President Joe Forkin.
For that fee, the concern will receive the right to dock at the bulkhead at Market Street, he said. The space won’t be usable for the enterprise until they build a gangway for boarding and also make electric, water and sewer connections. Because these improvements would benefit the DRWC even if the company should leave, DRWC will credit them up to $100,000 in the first year, Forkin said. But if the company does not stay at least four years – a time that represents one contract extension – it will have to give back the money, he said.
Philadelphia Paddleboat is an affiliate of CI Travel, a large-scale travel agency based in Virginia that makes arrangements for NASA, the Security Exchange Commission and other large clients. But it also brought the city the Spirit of Philadelphia, said Kevin J. McElroy, company president. When the opportunity to buy this boat arose, he said the company became interested in returning to its river cruising past, in Philadelphia.
The vessel was built in 1994 as a vehicle for the gaming industry on the Mississippi River. The gaming rules have changed, allowing for inland casinos, so this vessel wasn’t needed for that purpose anymore. The boat is 228 feet long, 64 feet wide and 65 feet high. “When you see her, it’s a wow factor,” McElroy said.
The company is going to spend about $10 million to take the ship from gaming to cruising, McElroy said. “We’re convinced we have the right concept, the right team, and that Philadelphia is the right market,” he said.
McElroy wants a ride on the craft to be a complete “Philadelphia experience,” showcasing the city’s food, and even its art. He spoke of contacting art galleries and local artists about decorating the ship.
Both the company principals and members of DRWC’s real estate committee said the Belle won’t be in direct competition with the
Spirit. It will be a less formal, family-oriented experience with inexpensive options and on-board entertainment and activities that can be purchased or not, a la carte.
Forkin said that he has met with the Spirit owners, and they agreed that the two river boat companies would be offering significantly different services. The Spirit of Philadelphia also has a licensing agreement with the DRWC, Forkin said, and it would have been against the DRWC’s interest to have two tenants in direct competition with each other. “What we wanted was synergy,” he said.
The Philadelphia Belle will accommodate school and other large-group tours. And it will offer an educational narrative on the river, at least during the daytime. Night-time cruises may have a different vibe, McElory said.
The vessel is now in dry dock. It will be refurbished and travel by land to the southern Mississippi, where crews will travel with her
through the gulf and around Florida, finally reaching Philadelphia this summer. It will take awhile – the vessel travels at about 10 miles per hour.
The Belle will offer some cruises this fall, with a full launch in spring 2011.
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