Two more gambling ships look at Port

Two more gambling ships are interested in coming to Brevard County, which could bring to four the number of such ships based at Port Canaveral.

There currently is one gambling ship operating at Port Canaveral and a second ship is expected to start operations later this month. The two new potential players made presentations Tuesday to the Canaveral Port Authority as the first step in negotiations.

„I think whoever wants to come, that’s great,“ port Commissioner Tom Goodson said during the meeting. „We can look at ourselves as the Biloxi of Florida, and that’s fine with me. But we have to take our time to make a decision.“ Biloxi, Miss., is a major gambling center for the South.

„I think it’s just amazing that there are so many parties interested in these terminals,“ Canaveral Port Authority Chief Executive Officer Stan Payne said. „It’s a big statement that shows we’re the place to do business. We’re going to move ahead and talk to all the interested companies.“

Payne said SeaEscape of Fort Lauderdale and Omega Commercial Finance Corp. of Miami were among several gambling ship operators that wanted to have a presence at Port

Also at Tuesday’s meeting were representatives from SunCruz Casinos, which operates a gambling ship at Port Canaveral, and the soon-to-arrive Las Vegas Casino Lines.

Las Vegas Casino Lines President Larry Mullin asked port commissioners for „a level playing field,“ and that new ship operators should be held to the standards adhered to by existing tenants.

While both of the new companies would offer gaming, SeaEscape said it would bring more diversified fare to capture the family market.

Its ship, the Island Adventure, built in 1976, would offer a pool, a buffet and live entertainment, in addition to gambling. Unlike many gambling ships — which do not charge admission — the SeaEscape would charge people about USD 30 each to board the ship. A cabin would be extra, and the ship could be chartered, the company said.

SeaEscape wants to come to Port Canaveral because of the better tourism, snowbird and Orlando markets, said Judy Jarvis, executive vice president of SeaEscape.

SeaEscape is expected to make its last sailing out of Port Everglades in the Fort Lauderdale area on Sunday, and would shutter operations there, citing mounting competition from land-based Indian-run casinos and a shrinking consumer

Commissioners said they wanted more opportunities to attract jobs and customers to the port.

But Goodson, along with the other commissioners, agreed the port staff must do the due diligence to make sure any companies interested in occupying the now-vacant Sterling Casino Lines terminal are on solid financial footing.

Sterling, which formerly sailed from Port Canaveral, did not renew its contract with Canaveral Port Authority, and left the port in mid-July.

Jarvis conceded that SeaEscape has had financial difficulty, including problems meeting payroll at its Port Everglades operation.

But she said she would present necessary documents to the Canaveral Port Authority, and would try to reassure port officials that its financial position is improving.

Another company that expressed interest in coming to Port Canaveral is Omega Commercial, which says it has a 2,000-passenger gaming ship that is renovated and ready. The company also plans to negotiate with port officials.

Details on the Omega ship proposal would be forthcoming, company representatives said.

The interest by the gambling ship operators comes at a time when the gaming business is in flux. That already is reflected in passenger numbers.

Both Sterling and SunCruz had seen declines because of the economy and because of an increase in the offerings at land-based Seminole casinos like Hard Rock, which boasts Class III slot machines and blackjack.

The ships, for example, carried a combined 732,116 passengers in 2007, down 15.5 percent from the 866,374 passengers they carried in 2006. Gambling passenger counts continued to decrease in the first half of this year, according to Canaveral Port Authority figures.

„It’s tough for the gaming vessels right now,“ said Nova Southeastern gambling law professor Bob Jarvis, who is Judy Jarvis‘ husband. „For one thing, they’re not open 24 hours like the casinos, and they have expenses like crew and fuel. Mainly, they’re limited to six hours at sea, whereas the biggest advantage the casinos have is time.“

Ships want to come to Port Canaveral, despite the odds, because it has the best chance of any of the other ports in Florida to make a gaming business work, Payne said.

„We have access to a lot of tourists, and our locals and group business would play a role,“ Payne said.