Daily Independent (Ashland, KY)

February 20, 2013

Floating eatery in works

Carrie Stambaugh
The Independent

ASHLAND — A floating eatery could be on tap for the Ashland Riverfront.

City officials confirmed this week that the city is in discussion with owners and developers to locate the Star of Louisville at the Port of Ashland.

Ashland commissioners will be asked Thursday night whether to approve the concept and give permission to City Manager Steve Corbitt to begin further negotiations with the developers of the project.

The 135-foot boat would be permanently docked at the edge of the upgraded portion of the park and used as a restaurant. An additional barge would also be moored on the downriver edge of the current riverwalk to serve as an entry point to the Star of Louisville. It would also provide additional outdoor seating for the establishment, Corbitt said.

Infrastructure including additional parking, to be located on the bottom tier of the riverfront park, along with water, sewer and electric that would need to be expanded to the water’s edge, is needed to accommodate the restaurant. City officials have developed a cost analysis and drawings for those items, said Corbitt. He did not make those immediately available to the press because elected officials had not seen them yet.

Corbitt said the estimated cost of paving part of the existing grassy area and expanding the water, sewer and electric already in the park is about $10,000. It is his feeling that those costs could be recuperated through the revenue generated by the new business. Developers have asked the city to foot the bill but “that is to be negotiated,” Corbitt added.

The city would also likely charge the restaurant a docking fee, Corbitt said. “The city hasn’t determined what that dockage fee is, but I’m sure it will be in the thousands of dollars,” he said.

Corbitt, who will not be at Thursday’s meeting due to a conflict with the Kentucky City/County Management Association Winter Conference in Frankfort, said he believes the commission will give him approval to move forward.

“I believe the Commission, in general, is in favor,” Corbitt said. “I believe the developer has done a restaurant survey in the area and they know what kind of volume they can expect,” he said, adding he believes the restaurant could do well.

“It’s a rivertown and I think it will be a great attraction down there,” Corbitt said. “It is a fairly large boat and I think having this riverside floating restaurant with all the lights on it at night would be quite impressive. It would also increase traffic to the river,” he said. “It could result in a marina. If it’s a big a success it could attract a second restaurant.”

Officials have already looked at that possibility, he said.

Mayor Chuck Charles and local businessman Tom Burnette, who is involved in brokering the deal, both stressed Tuesday that the Star locating in Ashland is far from a done deal.

“Anything could happen,” said Burnette, who has been working on the project for at least a year and a half. “It’s all so premature. We haven’t even presented anything to them yet. We’re talking to the city about getting things ironed out with them.”

Burnette said he felt it could take up to three more months before a decision is final.

“This is at its very infant stages,” Charles cautioned as well. But, he added, “The concept is exciting, to finally bring some economic advantage to the Ashland Riverport.”

“There are plenty of companies out there, not just the one we are particularly looking at that would like to do that. Our riverport is an excellent opportunity for any of those companies to do that.”

Commissioner Kevin Gunderson let the news slip last week that the deal was in the works through his online newsletter KevinMail.

“I held off reporting that,” he said by phone Tuesday, explaining officials first began discussions about attracting an eatery to the Riverfront during former Mayor Steve Gilmore’s tenure more than four years ago. “It was inactive and now it looks like it might be coming back around.”  

If the restaurant was to locate in Ashland, it could signal a turning point for the future of the Riverfront Park and its designed and permitted but yet to be constructed subsequent phases. Drawings would expand the park downriver toward 9th Street. Plans call for reclaiming additional real estate currently under water along with adding additional “mounds” like the one housing the riverfront’s restrooms, along with new riverwalks, a bridge over the railroad tracks and an amphitheatre, in addition to walkways.

There are no immediate plans to construct later phases of the Riverfront Park due to a lack of funding.

City officials had hoped to secure another federal earmark for projects but those funds have largely dried up due to the Great Recession and the county’s political sentiment. U.S. Sen. Mitch McConnell was able to secure the $10.2 million-plus earmark in the Highway Reauthorization Bill that constructed the first phase of the riverfront park back in 2005.

McConnell has said publicly that he no longer supports earmarks for these types of projects.

“We need money and I don’t foresee us getting it,” said Corbitt, addressing the issue. “We’re going to have enough problems trying to maintain what we’ve got with the current economy and flat revenue.” 

However, Corbitt said any developer of a riverfront restaurant will be advised of those existing future plans.

“It’s all portable,” he said of the proposed floating restaurant. “The boats can be untied and taken off. The only thing driven into the water will be two studs to hold the party barge in place.”

It’s a concept the reported owner of the Star of Louisville, David Evanczyk, is familiar.

Evanczyk, who could not be immediately reached on Tuesday, operated The Star of Louisville, which was named the Star of Jeffersonville at that time, when it was located in that Indiana city and used as a cruise ship on the Ohio River. It went out of business there in late 2009.

A floating dock barge placed there for the boat subsequently sank and had to be removed from the river by city officials at a cost of more than $150,000.  Evanczyk and a construction company initially hired to remove the barge were subsequently sued by the city to recover that taxpayer money.

Ashland officials said they were unaware of that history until questioned about it Tuesday.

Charles said the city would “do our due diligence and look at everything, then decide what direction to go in.”

CARRIE STAMBAUGH can be reached at cstambaugh@dailyindependent.com or (606) 326-2653.