Decatur could pull riverboat permanently away from Florence
By Paul Huggins
The Decatur Daily
Decatur and Florence could be playing tug-of-war to become the full-time home for the Pickwick Belle riverboat.
Owners of the 90-foot paddle-wheeler began exploring sharing their excursion boat, currently based on Florence, with Decatur in December. A meeting with local tourism officials earlier this month, however, enticed them enough to discuss the possibility of moving it here permanently.
“I’ve been very impressed with the (Decatur-Morgan County Convention and Visitors Bureau) and their staff on how precise they are and their long-term planning skills,” said Tanya Irwin, Pickwick Belle marketing director. “They, like us, want to be in a relationship that is beneficial to all.”
Tami Reist, visitors bureau president, told her board of directors Thursday that the bureau and the local hotels that lack meeting space would partner with Pickwick Belle’s marketing efforts, she said the riverboat operators want marketing support.
Also, if the riverboat was docked at Riverwalk Marina, it would gain from high visibility of being next to the U.S. 31 causeway. And Decatur is closer than Florence to the research companies in Huntsville that could charter the riverboat for meetings and parties.
Decatur police are gathering up-to-date traffic counts on the causeway that Reist said she will share with Pickwick officials. A 2009 traffic survey by the Alabama Department of Transportation showed between 44,120 and 46,880 vehicles using that stretch of highway daily.
There are multiple benefits to Decatur for having a riverboat, Reist said.
First and foremost is that it attracts out-of-town visitors, many of whom could spend the night, she said. Irwin said in December most of her customers come from outside Florence, with church groups and senior travel groups being the largest parts of the customer base.
Because the Pickwick Belle doesn’t have a kitchen, it relies on local caterers to prepare food for lunch and dinner cruises, and Reist said that’s a second area of the Morgan County economy that would benefit from the Belle.
Having a riverboat in Decatur also gives local residents more entertainment and leisure options, she added.
The next meeting between Pickwick and Decatur officials will include a local hotel manager; Steve Conner, owner of Riverwalk Marina; and Richard Grace, a member of the Decatur Utilities board, whom Reist said will discuss Pickwick’s options for safely unloading waste.
Reist said the only concern raised so far is whether Riverwalk Marina had enough parking left over from its boat launching and Hard Dock Cafe customers.
Conner said he doesn’t see Riverwalk parking being a big issue, especially since most boat launching is done at Ingalls Harbor now.
“I’m sure there would be a few hurdles we’d have go through to make it work, but I’m all for it,” he said. “It would be great for the city, great for Riverwalk, great for the community.”
Irwin said the Pickwick Belle wasn’t looking to move, but because it’s a business, the owners must look at other options that could prove more profitable. She said that there still are a lot of details to discuss at the next meeting with Decatur officials.
It’s still possible both Decatur and Florence could share the riverboat, Irwin said, but economically it’s more feasible to keep the Pickwick Belle in one place, not just from a fuel-cost perspective but time-wise, as well.
“If you’re an authentic paddle wheeler, then 5 or 6 mph is about the fastest speed you’re going to go,” she said. “You’re looking at 12 to 13 hours to travel (from Florence to Decatur). Whether you’re traveling with a customer on board or not, you’re still traveling with a captain and crew, and you have the same expenses as if you’re traveling with passengers.”