Column: When Long Beach sunk the plan to ship the Queen Mary to Japan

The spring of 1997 was Long Beach’s last good chance to get out from under the insatiable money pit that is the Queen Mary.

The decision to let that opportunity float away and disappear over the horizon resulted in the city dumping millions of dollars into the ship over the years, with hundreds of millions of dollars still needed to make the ship a little something less than a death trap.

And lord knows what the figure will be in order to turn the ship and its adjacent 45 acres into the tourist draw that its operators and the city have fantasized about for the more than half-century the Queen Mary has been in Long Beach.

In the spring of 1997, the ship’s operator, Joseph Prevratil, floated the idea of towing the ship off to Tokyo Bay, where a group of Japanese investors would borrow it for three to five years and operate it as a casino-hotel.

And wait, there’s more! In one scenario, the Japanese group would fix up the ship, which at the time, required about $32 million in repairs, and pay Long Beach $5 million a year for the time they had it. And then return the Queen in showroom condition.

Or, Plan B, the city and/or Prevratil could repair the ship here in town before sending it across the Pacific and then make enough money from the Japanese investors to recoup the money, and much more.

Were there concerns about the plan? Many, not the least of which was whether the Queen Mary could survive the trip over to Japan, which would be accomplished by surrounding the vessel with flotation devices and towing it in a six-week voyage. And, further, the same question in reverse: Could the ship survive the return trip?

Long Beach City Manager James Hankla’s office estimated the cost of the journey at about $12 million, each way. Prevratil, however, said it could be done for $5 million per leg of the trip.

Million-dollar figures flew around the project: Assistant City Manager Henry Taboada figured if the Queen was to be gussied up before the journey, you were looking at a couple of million for a large-scale bilge-pumping system and welding of the ship’s rivets below the waterline to prevent leakage; another couple million for insurance and maybe $4.5 million for dry-docking for further repairs and painting.

Not a problem for Prevratil, who reckoned he could raise $20-$40 million from the Japan deal.

Either way, with the Japan deal going through, Long Beach would end up with a ship-shape ship and Prevratil could complete his vision for the Queen and its adjacent acreage, which was just one of many of the pipe dreams of the ship’s operators over the years: a three-part $90 million Dickensian funhouse of the city/ship/port’s past, present and future. The Port of Present would include stores, entertainment and a marine museum; Port of Future would include a sci-fi theme park with a Cyber Cafe and an anti-gravity moonwalk ride; and the Port of Past would be highlighted by a working replica of the Pike’s old Cyclone Racer.

It’s hard to say whether the Queen Mary has gobbled up more money or dreams throughout its 54-year reign in Long Beach.

And, obviously, the Japan deal fell apart. City Manager Hankla, like every other Long Beach city manager and mayor over the years, was adamantly against monkeying around with the ship, and he and the council were somewhat leery of the deal to begin with as Prevratil wouldn’t offer the names of the Japanese investment group or many other nagging details.

In mid-May 1997, after two hours of discussion, the council torpedoed the Queen’s adventure to Japan.

The ship stays, said Hankla. As for the $32 million needed for repairs? That, he said, would come from city and private money, including the future profits the ship was hoped and figured to make.

Whatever money went into the ship, though, it wasn’t enough. For decades now, there’s never been enough. And with each of the Queen’s long parade of operators out-bungling the previous one, the ship has become a problem that will take the better part of a billion dollars to fix the way it needs to be fixed.

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Tim Grobaty is a columnist and opinions editor for the Long Beach Post. He began his newspaper career at the Press-Telegram in 1976 as a copy boy and moved on to feature writer, music critic, TV critic, copy editor and daily columnist. He’s the author of several books, including I’m Dyin’ Here, and he lives in Long Beach.
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