In late January, I received a call from my son, Alex, informing me that he had received an offer from a dinner cruise boat operator in Tampa, Fla. to purchase the Spirit of Peoria riverboat.
The offer was conveyed through a boat broker, and it was non-negotiable, at $1 million.
At the beginning of 2022, selling the boat was not on his mind. He was preparing for another year of operations, optimistic that COVID would have minimal impact. However, after review and a nearly 30-year career of operating the boat, he decided to sell. The buyer sent up a team, which thoroughly inspected the Spirit and agreed to accept it in “as is” condition. A contract was signed.
On Feb. 2, a copy of this contract was delivered to the city of Peoria. It is important to note that Alex did not have to share this information, as his 25-year lease was set to end on April 29 and he could have quietly sold the boat after that expiration, without giving the city the option of purchasing. He also disclosed the city’s right of first refusal to the buyer, who asked for $50,000 in compensation for his expenses, time and effort if the city ended up purchasing the boat.
In short, Alex gave the city every opportunity to retain the Spirit in Peoria.
A little historical review may be helpful. The Spirit was built in Paducah, Kentucky in 1988 and brought to Peoria by hotelier Jim Jumer. Along with the tugboat Katie Hooper, they became known as the Peoria Boatworks.
In 1990, riverboat gambling came to Illinois. Jumer applied for coveted licenses in both Peoria and Rock Island. An investment group from East Peoria submitted a competing bid for a local license. Peoria, with the infrastructure already in place, looked to be a sure winner.
However, the rules stated that a single entity was limited to one license. Jumer went to Rock Island, leaving the East Peoria group with the local license.
Lacking a boat and any facilities, but wanting to get into business as quickly as possible, the East Peoria group ended up leasing the Spirit and Katie Hooper from the city of Peoria while initially conducting operations on the Peoria side of the river. They did this for several years, until their boat and facilities in East Peoria were ready.
The city of Peoria was left with the Spirit, which it had no desire to operate. The Peoria Park District ran the boat for a short time but lost money. A discouraged city put the Spirit up for sale. It was to be moved to Louisville, Ky.
That’s when I stepped in and purchased the Spirit and Katie Hooper because I wanted them to stay in Peoria. The City Council and I drew up a 25-year lease giving the city the first right of refusal to match any offer that would move the boat out of Peoria.
Upon graduation from Bradley University, my son started working at G&G Packet Company and earned his captain’s license. In 1998, because of a perceived conflict I had with the city lease after being elected mayor, I sold my interest in G&G Packet Company to him. He has been operating the boat successfully ever since. I could not be more proud of him and the job he has done, building a business of loyal employees and repeat customers while representing Peoria all over the Midwest, from Minneapolis to Cincinnati.
It has not been an easy path. He has endured flooding, the financial crisis, COVID and, as anyone who has ever owned a boat knows, constant maintenance and upkeep costs.
Powered by twin Caterpillar 3412 engines and through its very name, the Spirit is indelibly tied to Peoria, Illinois and its proud manufacturing and riverboat history. So, why is the boat leaving Peoria?
Frankly, the council is right in not wanting to own and operate the boat, as that is not an appropriate function of the city. However, they could have done a far better job of trying to keep the boat here by seeking out a local entrepreneur, investment group or even a foundation dedicated to keeping the Spirit in Peoria. That’s what they did in LaCrosse, Wis. to keep the Julia Belle Swain in their city.
Instead, City Hall spent far too much valuable time and effort focusing on the financial capability of the out-of-town buyer, who stated he needed no outside financing and was willing to pay cash for the boat. He is an experienced operator. The city, under the terms of the lease, was obligated to take the boat on the same terms and conditions. An appraisal and detailed inspection of the boat would have been time consuming and unnecessary, as both the price and condition of the boat were established by the buyer’s offer!
My son did provide 10 years of tax returns for G&G Packet Company showing the boat to be profitable. I believe it would have continued to be profitable for a local buyer.
At the March 22 council meeting, the city manager said the agreement called for the city to purchase just the boat, not the business of G&G Packet Company, which is correct. But the city never inquired if G&G Packet could have been included in the sale. It could have been.
In addition, the city would have gotten an experienced crew, a business already booked for 2022, and most importantly, 30 years of good will. I had none of these things in place when I purchased the boat 30 years ago, but I had faith in the city and its support, which never wavered until now.
I’m sure there will be many others who will join me in being sad and disappointed to see the Spirit sail downriver — for the last time!
Bud Grieves is a former Peoria mayor and
previous owner of the Spirit of Peoria.