SunCruz to fold Hollywood gambling-ship operations - Tuesday 12th of April 2005

Gambling ship operator SunCruz Casinos will shut down its Hollywood operations and lay off 90 workers Sunday, local employment officials said.

A spokeswoman at Broward WorkForce One said SunCruz told officials it was firing the employees because the company couldn't keep its business running by using smaller ships. The agency, which provides job training and assistance, steps in to help workers when mass layoffs occur.

SunCruz officials could not be reached for comment, despite several attempts by phone.

WorkForce One spokeswoman Kelly Allen said the agency was told that revenues had dropped for the Dania Beach-based company, which operates gambling cruises in Hollywood and six other locations in Florida and South Carolina. From Hollywood, the ship departs twice a day.

As of last year, SunCruz employed about 1,000 people in Florida and South Carolina to run its gambling ships.

After years of legal wrangling, SunCruz lost a protracted legal struggle with the city of Hollywood over the size of the boats it operated.

Neighbors complained about noise, and in 2001 a court ruled that a 165-foot SunCruz boat had to go, but the smaller-capacity, 160-foot ship could return to the Intracoastal Waterway. The decision was upheld on appeal in February 2003.

"Is SunCruz going to say they went out of business because they couldn't make as much money with the medium boat as they could with a humongous boat?" City Attorney Dan Abbott said on Thursday. "That might very well be true. But the city of Hollywood is certainly not legally to blame."

One gaming expert said that it's difficult to maintain a successful business from running gambling ships if there are land-based alternatives, as there are in South Florida.

"You still have people who like the ship, but you're going to lose half your market to people who are just going to go to a land-based casinos," said Mark Dvorchak, with Economics Research Associates in Los Angeles. "The question, is that sliver of the market sustainable for what is an expensive operation?"

The layoffs are one more chapter in the saga of SunCruz Casinos. Last May, a fire started aboard one of the ships that was heading from Hollywood into international waters, where gambling is legal. There were no serious injuries.

Earlier that year, the company was bought out of bankruptcy by Ocean Casino Cruises Inc. for $36 million. Among the investors was Spiros Naos, the nephew of the company's founder, the dynamic Greek entrepreneur Gus Boulis. Boulis died in a still-unsolved ambush slaying in Fort Lauderdale in 2001, six months after he sold the company.

WorkForce One's Allen said Broward employment officials would conduct seminars on Saturday to help the employees learn about unemployment compensation and free job training assistance.

"We try to help these folks out," she said. "Ideally, we would have more time."

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