Gambling boat venture may sink

The private venture to launch gambling boats from North Charleston is in trouble, with one of the business partners saying it may not happen this fall as planned, if at all.

Charleston businessman Hank Hofford said Tuesday that his group is having trouble arranging the millions of dollars in financing needed to get the cruises going.

Also, he said some of the boats they wanted for the North Charleston waterfront have become unavailable, including one that was shifted to run dinner cruises out of New York.

But the biggest factor, Hofford said, remains the tight economy, where private investors and banks don't seem ready to take on the risk.

"We can't go to banks and lenders like we used to," he said.

Hofford added: "If we can't get something done by this fall, we'll probably stop wasting time and money on it. If it's not going to fit, it's not going to fit."

In October, North Charleston City Council approved zoning changes that will allow gambling boats to sail from the Cooper River. As envisioned, they would leave several times a day from docking points within the footprint of the former Naval Base and Shipyard, and head offshore where Las Vegas-style table games and slots are legal in international waters.

Hofford is part of two groups that early on had applied for city business licenses, Palmetto Casino Cruz Inc. and Diamond Casino Cruz II, looking to get an early start. He is spokesman for both.

As recently as May, Hofford was optimistic a deal was just weeks away for a North Charleston boat, saying he was eyeing a "fast ferry" 58-foot-wide, two-level ship with a 400-seat theater. It was projected to make the three-mile trip offshore in about 75 minutes.

But Tuesday, he said too many factors are still in the way for a startup that could cost as much as $10 million. "Until I have a financial commitment in writing I can count on, I can't pull the trigger," he said.

He did say he'd heard talk in the industry that various other groups are said to be mulling the North Charleston market, but as of Tuesday, Hofford's ventures were the only two groups that had applied for city licenses.

An expert in gambling in America said Tuesday the situation in North Charleston is reflective of a downswing in the industry nationwide, and is partly a reflection that the novelty of casinos has worn off.

"Gaming is not as easy as it used to be when you made money, regardless," said Jim Kilby, professor emeritus on gaming issues at the University of Nevada Las Vegas. "Now, it's a challenge."

Most of America is now within a few hours' drive of some sort of gambling operation, he said, adding that the lure of old-time gambling that made Las Vegas famous also is gone. "Now, it's just more of an arcade," he said of most gambling experiences available in 2011.

Casino boats became legal in South Carolina after the Legislature passed a bill specifically giving local governments the authority to accept or reject them. Little River, north of Myrtle Beach, is the only jurisdiction in the state where they operate. Some have dubbed them cruises "to nowhere," since they leave port and don't make land again until they return to the same spot.

North Charleston entered the gambling boat arena partly to help raise its profile as a tourism destination, saying the boats could bring in at least $700,000 a year to the city's bank account from the various taxes, fees and other offshoot dividends associated with the trips.

A city spokesman said Tuesday that even with Hofford's setback, officials expect the boats to eventually thrive and become a draw.

"We still feel the casino boat industry will be successful here," said Ryan Johnson, assistant to Mayor Keith Summey.