Port officials OK SunCruz deal for a second casino boat - Monday 11th of December 2006

second casino boat is coming to the Port of Palm Beach.

Port commissioners Friday approved a contract with SunCruz Casinos, a deal that could bring the financially struggling port more than $1 million a year in additional revenue.

The 165-foot SunCruz VI, a 600-passenger day-cruiser, is expected to begin operations in mid-January. It joins the Palm Beach Princess in offering gambling trips from the port.

The deal comes as port revenue suffers from the departure of two passenger vessels this year: the Cloud X ferry and the Big Easy casino ship.

During the past year, the port has needed to use cash reserves to balance its budget and anticipates doing so again, partly because its 6-year-old, $27.5 million cruise terminal has never had the cruise traffic it was intended to attract.

The Palm Beach Princess accounts for 12 percent of the ports annual revenues. While that ship is successful, port officials said, Securities and Exchange Commission filings show that its parent company, ITG Vegas, has been laboring under so much corporate debt that a major creditor has been threatening to foreclose.

The port commission approved the SunCruz deal in a 3-2 vote, with commissioners Ed Oppel and Jean Enright opposed. They sided with port lawyers, who had recommended a two-week delay to address concerns of the Palm Beach Princess owners that the new ship could interfere with their operations, particularly because of a shortage of parking spaces.

But Commission Chairman George Mastics called the lawyers concerns "a lot of jabberwocky" and dismissed a critical letter from Princess CEO Francis X. Murray as threats. Mastics, a trial lawyer, added: "Lets gird our loins and get in there and fight it out."

"Our only interest is to protect our rights to deliver the finest guest experience possible," Murray countered.

SunCruz is the line that helped sink Washington lobbyist Jack Abramoff. Abramoff, a former SunCruz co-owner, is serving a a 5-year, 10-month sentence stemming from his fraudulent purchase of the casino boat fleet in 2000. His plea agreement to testify about his corrupt lobbying practices put him at the center of one of the most far-reaching influence-peddling scandals in U.S. history. Investigations continue to implicate members of Congress and their aides.

Oceans Casino Cruises bought SunCruz out of bankruptcy in April 2004 and does business under the SunCruz name. The company, which operates out of six ports in Florida and South Carolina, expects to employ 150 people a day at the Port of Palm Beach, with an annual payroll of more than $3 million.

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