SAVANNAH, Ga. - A new gambling boat has drifted into town as the Millionaire's Casino continues to flounder on River Street.
Starting at the end of June, Myrtle Beach, S.C., businessman Al Shuman hopes to run his 150-foot-long Diamond Lady from the dock of the Williams Seafood property at the foot of the Bull River Bridge.
The landmark Wilmington Island restaurant burned to the ground in a suspicious December fire. Police ruled arson, but have no suspects.
Owner Tommy Williams has submitted plans to the Metropolitan Planning Commission that would create 129 parking spaces - most for casino boat parking - on the site of the former restaurant. A 3,350-square-foot restaurant would be built closer to the river.
Mr. Shuman says depending on tides, it's a 40- to 60-minute trip from the St. Augustine Creek berth to three miles off-shore, where gambling is legal.
Travel time has been one of the main reasons that four other casino boats have failed over the past decade not long after starting operations in Chatham County.
It's at least a 90-minute trip from the Millionaire's Casino dock at the Hyatt Regency Savannah to federal waters.
The boat, however, hasn't run trips from there since December, when company officials suspended operations to replace the boat's engines.
Even before then, however, the boat had experienced problems. Inspection holdups and a myriad of personnel issues, including the deportation of its Filipino crew, delayed the boat's grand opening.
Then its August 2004 maiden voyage was cut short after insulation began smoldering while at sea.
The U.S. Coast Guard temporarily suspended operations in October after some crew members were found to lack proper certification. In early December, the boat was towed up the Savannah River after an engine died.
On Friday, the boat was back at its Hyatt berth, but the name "Millionaire's Casino" had been stripped from its hull. "Texas Star," instead, graced the transom. On Monday, the boat was gone.
The operation's phone number was disconnected, and its office, just east of Savannah City Hall, sat vacant.
Contacted Monday afternoon, General Manager Jackie Jackson would say little about his boat's future, saving details for a news conference planned for this week. He did say the casino had leased new office space next to Finnegan's Wines and Liquors on West Bay Street.
Mr. Shuman has taken aim at the Millionaire's Casino in interviews, but he said his focus is developing a "good relationship" with Savannah. He said the business will employ 140 people; he is now trying to fill about 60 jobs.
"We'll either sink or swim based on community involvement," he said. "Once they get to know us, I think this city will be happy with us."
He said his company, Diamond Management, has interests in the construction, real estate, entertainment and recording industries, but has little gambling experience.
Mr. Shuman, however, is no stranger to the tables. He said he's been banned from one casino boat because he's won too much.