SunCruz may expand gambling cruise operation in South Florida

Two years after emerging from bankruptcy, and five years after founder Gus Boulis was murdered by a hitman in Fort Lauderdale, SunCruz Casinos says it has stabilized its finances and is ready to expand.

The Dania Beach day cruise operator is hoping to renew its foothold in South Florida by securing a berth at the Port of Palm Beach.

If successful, the Palm Beach gambit would be another step in rebuilding SunCruz, which has lacked a presence in Florida’s biggest population center — South Florida — since it pulled out of Hollywood in April 2005.

But the company faces a rising tide of gambling competition in Florida, with the arrival of slot machines at four pari-mutuel facilities in Broward County and the growing prospect of more attractive slots at Indian gaming venues.

In an interview, SunCruz Chairman Robert Weisberg said he’s confident that because SunCruz offers table games such as blackjack and roulette — still barred at land-based casinos in Florida — that his ships will remain attractive to the state’s large gambling audience.

„We don’t see any competition from the Broward pari-mutuels,“ Weisberg said.

SunCruz filed for Chapter 11 bankruptcy protection in 2001 after Boulis was killed. He had sold the company to a group that included lobbyist Jack Abramoff in a deal that proved fraudulent and took years to unravel.

In March 2004, a group that included Weisberg bought the SunCruz assets for USD 36.1 million and used them to establish a new company, Oceans Casino Cruises. They kept the SunCruz trade name because it was so well known.

SunCruz runs gambling ships from five Florida cities and Myrtle Beach, S.C., but has never ventured into Palm Beach County.

Weisberg said SunCruz has been interested for years in sailing from the Port of Palm Beach but needed to show it was financially solid to have any hope of gaining a long-term berthing agreement at the port.

SunCruz has negotiated a one-year agreement, with four one-year options, to sail its second-largest vessel, the 600-passenger SunCruz VI, a minimum of 40 times a month. The Port of Palm Beach district board of commissioners expects to consider the agreement today.

Since emerging from bankruptcy, SunCruz has grown its revenue from USD 65 million to USD 90 million and rebuilt employment from 750 to more than 1,000, Weisberg said.

But other financial benchmarks, including levels of debt and profitability, are unknown. Weisberg said he doesn’t plan to open the company’s books to help win the berthing agreement. „We are a private company,“ he said.

SunCruz calculates its ship would generate about USD 1.1 million in fees and parking income to the port and create 150 jobs with a payroll of about USD 3 million. Port Commissioner Ed Opel said the port staff will scrutinize those claims.

„We have some serious analysis to do,“ Opel said.

Opel said his concern about SunCruz is whether it will cannibalize business from the port’s other day cruise vessel, the Palm Beach Princess. „In the past we haven’t had any success with more than one boat at the port,“ he said.

Weisberg said that multiple ships help each other because they produce more awareness of day cruising through advertising. He also said SunCruz is strictly a gambling cruise, with no sit-down dining or entertainment.

SunCruz has guaranteed to carry 50,000 passengers within a year of signing an agreement and 100,000 a year after that. The port hosted about 225,000 passengers last year. „This is going to be a real plus to the port,“ Weisberg said.

A successful launch of cruises at Palm Beach would help with even bigger plans. Weisberg wants to add multi-day cruises to the SunCruz lineup. He said the customers, operations and marketing are all in place. „It’s just a matter of raising capital,“ Weisberg said.