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Showboat Majestic Eyes New Life in Newport (& Mike Fink May Float Again, Too)

The Newport riverfront is poised to become even more entertaining, so long as a newly announced dream comes to fruition.

And $3 million turns up, too.

The famed Showboat Majestic, the last of its kind in the United States, still floats across the Ohio River in Cincinnati, the city that has owned the theatrical relic since 1967. It has been dormant since Landmark Productions vacated it in 2013.

"We all love a good story," said Joshua Steele, at the start of his presentation to the Newport City Commission on Monday night. Steele, along with partner Tim Swallow, has formed Showboat Holdings, LLC, in an effort to tell more stories on the riverfront. It would be a riverfront centerpiece, he said, a destination for year round theatre and cinema events. 25,000 people would visit the site and would spend $700,000 annually at nearby businesses, Steele estimated. 

The ambitious plan to revitalize an old riverboat in our area would counter more recent trends such as the departure of the Delta Queen, the closure of the Mike Fink floating restaurant, and the long time since the last Tall Stacks festival. Like the Mike Fink, the Showboat Majestic is a National Landmark, and both of these legacy vessels could be paired in this latest plan. Steele and Swallow have been in talks with the Bernstein family, owners and operators of BB Riverboats and the Mike Fink, about possibly acquiring the aged and vacant vessel that offered fine dining on Covington's riverfront for decades.

The plan calls for a second vessel to be mounted alongside the Majestic just west of the Purple People Bridge. While the Majestic would entertain visitors with shows in its 220-seat playing space, the second vessel, the Mike Fink or otherwise, would be home to the box office, gift shop, and other amenities. "These two vessels will offer summer stock theater, cinema, and educational programming," Steele said in his pitch, a presentation that included the silhouette of the Mike Fink looming behind the Majestic.

KZF would lead the architectural work, according to the plan.

Originally built in 1923 in Pittsburgh, the Majestic traveled up and down the river, docking at various cities and offering the locals a taste of floating show business. Cincinnati purchased it in 1967 to prevent its move to Louisville which had previously lured the Queen City's Avalon and renamed it the Belle of Louisville, according to the plan presented Monday. The University of Cincinnati operated the boat before Cincinnati Landmark Productions, the creative force behind theaters in Covedale and Price Hill, took over. Future Broadway stars like Covington-native Lee Roy Reams, Pamela Meyers, David Canary, Diana Rogers, and Vicki Lewis have graced the boards abord Majestic, as have film stars Kevin Kline and local favorite Sarah Jessica Parker.

Steele and Swallow are acting on their plan now to prevent the Majestic from attempts to relocate her again. Other bids on the property, which had been put up for sale, were from out of town interests, Steele said. 

Prior to Monday, there had been a back and forth between the theatre developers (Steele is a well-known local performer and arts manager and Swallow is behind Cincinnati World Cinema) and city leadership. "We’ve received guidance and appropriate scrutiny from Commissioners, the City Manager and local stakeholders, and have gone to great lengths to address key issues," the pair wrote in a letter to the commission last week. "We trust you and your colleagues will recognize the contribution of the Majestic project to Newport’s economic and cultural landscape, as well as the due diligence that has informed its creation."

On Monday, the proposal received more scrutiny, particularly from Commissioners Thomas Guidugli and Frank Peluso who, while generally supportive and receptive to the idea, want more information about maintenance plans and other potential associated costs to the City of Newport. Mayor Jerry Peluso brought up the potential for flooding and the effect Mother Nature has on river-based businesses in the region. The current plan, which calls for a 10-year mooring on the Newport riverbank, attempts to calm those worries.

The river has a 35 percent chance each year of reaching flood stage, the plan states, and river tendencies will not substantially diminish revenue for the Majestic. Parking concerns will be addressed by the existing Newport on the Levee garage and the under-construction Aqua on the Levee garage, both of which offer more than enough spaces, combined with programming that will strategically not compete with Reds games at Great American Ballpark (but will be designed to complement riverfront events like Italianfest with shortened and special shows designed for the general public rather than loyal theater-goers).

The other obvious concern is money. While the most ambitious of the Majestic plan calls for $3.05 million, Steele and Swallow have created three scenarios with two making the project feasible with less money raised than hoped-for. Steele is optimistic, though, pointing to high profile arts projects in the region like at Ensemble Theater and Music Hall that have received generous support. They will contract with the Conway Company, fundraising experts that have helped some Northern Kentucky capital projects, notably at Covington Catholic High School.

There is already a committed cash investment of $350,000, commercial financing offered at $100,000, special financing offered for $600,000, and a total fundraising goal of $2 million. 

Next steps? A feasibility study would take place in May and completed by July. Architectural planning would begin in September with plans submitted to the City of Newport for consideration in February 2017. If approved next March, the next step would be to acquire a second vessel in May with construction work and the relocation of the Majestic to Newport in September 2017. The boat could have a grand opening then if operating under two of its smaller plans. If Steele and Swallow hold out for the full $3 million goal, the grand opening would take place in May 2018 after full renovation of the second vessel.

Visitors will board the Majestic on a stylized landing that would be a throwback to the days when showboats docked at towns up and down the river, something that could happen again if all goes according to the plan.

"The Showboat has a lot of advantages. It is the last of its kind," Steele said. "It's a National Historic Landmark. There is a great history of theatre here. There is a robust film community. This is the fifth oldest venue in greater Cincinnati.

"The stakes are high. If we don't raise the money for this project, the Showboat goes away."

Written by Michael Monks, editor & publisher

Image via Wiki Commons