Riverboat official seeks deferment from Kingston

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By Jennifer Raymond

The Watts Bar Belle is chugging along — but not at the pace its investors had anticipated.

Dave Westberg approached the Kingston City Council last month to tell them about his current financial woes.

After providing city officials with financial statements, he was back again at a council workshop this week.

He asked for help from the city, which is where the Watts Bar Belle is docked.

“We’ve got a good product,” Westberg said. “I think it’s an important thing for Kingston to keep us around here.”

Westberg said the riverboat company has yet to make a profit and hopes that the council can look at puting off payments — rent, the city calls it — for allowing him to dock in the city.

“We are asking for deferment until we are in a position where we are making a profit,” Westberg said.

In order to make a profit, Westberg said that it would require the company to make at least $30,000 a month for 12 months.

Councilman Brant Williams pointed out that the company reached well beyond that number in the last four months.

However, Westberg pointed out that this must be made for all 12 months.

He added that in the business plan they projected that the company would be making $650,000 it’s third year.

“We are way behind that,” Westberg said.

One of the reasons for this is because when the company started it was underfunded.

According to Westberg, they needed $1.6 million to fund the project, but started with a little more than half of that.

Williams told Westberg he had heard rumors that Westberg was contending the city did not fulfill it’s responsibility to the Watts Bar Riverboat Co.

“In actuality, you are in breach of contract for failing to pay your rent,” he said.

Other issues involved sign ordinance changes or allowances Westberg had asked for.

Westberg called the issue a “dead horse,” but said that people — even locally — are still unaware that the riverboat is docked in the area.

“It’s a dead horse because you are only being treated like any other business in Kingston,” Williams said.

Westberg had hoped to acquire more signs in conjunction with the mention of the boat on the I-40 Kingston exit sign, a sign when you come off the exit ramp and at the boat site itself.

“I spend $80,000 a year to advertise,” said Williams of his own business. “We’re not responsible for advertising your business.”

Westberg said the riverboat company’s business plan has been reworked and he is actively looking for investors.

“We’re looking for every cut we can possibly take,” Westberg said.

Westberg is looking for a deferment on the 3-percent of the monthly gross revenue that is paid to the city.

Williams wondered if that small amount would even help.

“You need to think big,” he told Westberg.

Mayor Troy Beets said that while he wants the company to make it, he felt payments should be deferred to a definite time and a penalty should be added.

“We are in essence, stewards of the taxpayer’s money,” Beets said. “And people who wanted to be bailed out in the past and we didn’t do it, may get angry.”

Williams said the riverboat is an important part of the community.

Williams threw out the idea of looking into grants to see if it would be possible to buy the boat from Westberg.

“We could ensure that the boat would always be here,” Williams said.

He added that the riverboat would be a sign that development on the waterfront can look nice and not distract from the views of the lake.

Leslie Henderson, president of The Roane Alliance, was at the meeting to discuss tourism and the riverboat.

She said the visitor’s bureau, which falls under The Roane Alliance umbrella, has been giving the company co-op ads to help with advertising.

Henderson said she is also on the lookout for potential new investors.

“We need to fight real hard to keep the riverboat here,” she said. “It would send a terrible message outside the county if we can’t make a go of it.”

Matt Caldwell, the developer of Ladd Landing in Kingston, also made a proposal to the city — after Westberg had left.

He talked about possibly moving the boat to Ladd Park.

Caldwell said he had toyed with the idea of opening a museum in the vicinity to showcase Kingston’s riverboat and peach orchard history

The council did not make a decision on the situation, but will discuss it again at the council meeting this Tuesday at 7 p.m.

“We want you to succeed,” Councilwoman Teresa Ferguson said to Westberg before he left.

“It’s a win-win for all of us,” Ferguson said.