City weighs 'best and final' bids on riverfront boat dock

Floating hotel now part of the mix
Posted at 6:43 PM, Aug 18, 2021
and last updated 2021-08-18 20:29:41-04

CINCINNATI — It’s easy enough to find a hotel room on the Cincinnati riverfront. But what about booking a room on the river itself?

One of the finalists in the city’s riverfront boat-dock competition has proposed renovating a former riverboat casino boat as part of his plan to give boaters better access to Smale Riverfront Park, the Banks project, sporting events and concerts.

“The second and third floor would be a boutique hotel, 60 rooms on two floors,” said Don Jones, owner of Queen City Riverboats. “The boat already has elevators in it, air conditioners in it. We’d have to do all the build-out with bathrooms in every room.”

Jones shared details of his bid as the city’s purchasing department tries to decide between two companies that were asked to submit their “best and final offers” to the city last week, said Bobbi Hageman, Cincinnati’s Purchasing Director.

“They both seem like they’re capable,” Hageman said. “They both have good ideas.”

The city’s bidding competition followed a controversial vote by the Cincinnati Park Board last November to award a no-bid contract to Queen City Riverboats. It offered to build and privately operate a dock in front of the Cincinnati Public Landing in exchange for $1.7 million in public funding from a grant the city has since relinquished.

Critics objected to the financial terms of the deal and complained the proposed dock would keep overnight passenger boats like the Delta Queen from stopping in Cincinnati. So, the city invited new proposals in May. It drew initial interest in June from eight potential bidders but ultimately received only two proposals, both of which were rejected for not meeting the city’s inclusion standards.

Queen City Riverboats and H. Hafner & Sons were asked to revise their bids and make formal presentations August 11. Hageman said a selection committee will recommend one of those companies to the Cincinnati Park Board by Sept. 1.

The WCPO 9 I-Team approached both companies for details about their bids. Each supplied renderings and descriptions of their proposals.

This is Hafner's original design for a riverfront boat dock, submitted to the city in the summer of 2021.

Hafner & Sons is a landscape materials company where boating enthusiast Justin Cooper works as a vice president.

“I chose to approach it from a boater’s perspective,” Cooper said, “design it in a fashion that I would like to be a part of, as a boater.”

Hafner proposal includes opportunity for long-term mooring.

Hafner’s proposal calls for a floating restaurant that would be permanently moored on the western edge of the Public Landing, providing enough space for large riverboats to use the cobblestone embankment for passenger boarding.

“What we’ve designed is a main head boat on the easterly portion (of the Public Landing) and then docks would extend from that towards the west,” Cooper said. “Our head boat would be the main attraction,” with a restaurant that would be locally owned and operated.

Head boat would include restaurant space, showers and restrooms.

“I have an individual who is partnered with me, who has been experienced in the restaurant industry for quite some time,” said Cooper, who acquired a head boat that was formerly used as a bar and restaurant.

“It did not have kitchen or restroom facilities on it,” he said. “But our engineer drawings include restrooms and showers and a full kitchen.”

Justin Cooper crafted his riverfront dock proposal from a boater's perspective.

Extending westward from the head boat would be 720 feet of docks with 20 boat slips and 80 feet of dock space for Cincinnati fire boats.

Cooper said the city rejected his minority-inclusion goals because he proposed hiring subcontractors who were not registered with the city. His revised proposal fixed that problem.

“We’ve met and exceeded the requirements of the city,” he said.

Queen City Riverboats also revised its inclusion bid to satisfy city requirements.

“We put a budget together showing that we were hiring a minority contractor to do the docks and things like that,” Jones said.

Queen City Riverboat could renovate its existing head boat as part of riverfront dock development.

Queen City’s bid included two options: Relocate the company’s existing head boat from Dayton, Kentucky, to the Cincinnati riverfront, or relocate a riverboat casino from Dubuque, Iowa.

“I hope they go with that option,” Jones said. “If you Google Catfish Bend, you’ll see a massive beautiful casino boat that’s for sale. We’ve entered into an agreement to purchase it on an option. In other words, it I don’t get this contract, then I lose my option money and it just goes away.”

Queen City Riverboats wants to relocate and renovate a riverboat casino as part of its riverfront dock proposal.

Jones hopes to renovate the first floor of the 3-story riverboat into a casual pizza restaurant and bar, then find a boutique hotel operator to operate the second and third floors. A 12,000-square-foot rooftop deck could be rented out for weddings or corporate events, he added.

The 100-foot boat would serve as head boat for the docks, which would extend eastward toward the Public Landing for 660 feet. Jones said he is willing to share 5% of all revenue he earns from the restaurant, bar and docks, but he isn’t sure about including the hotel in that revenue-sharing arrangement.

“The hotel, candidly, is not using any city dollars,” Jones said, “and I can imagine that’s going to cost me about $1.5 million to build out.”

The proposals drew a mixed reaction from Alan Bernstein, who wrote a letter to the city last year opposing Jones’ no-bid contract. The owner of BB Riverboats said he hopes the city is able to complete its goal of bringing a public dock back to the Cincinnati riverfront by next summer.

“I always thought a marina would do good over there,” Bernstein said. “I’m a proponent of what they want to do, but it has to be done right and done well.”

Bernstein likes the location of the new proposal by Queen City Riverboats because it doesn’t block any part of the Public Landing. He also questions Hafner’s proposal for long-term mooring on a river where runaway barges break loose from time to time.

“If those barges run into small boats, those boats are in a lot of trouble,” he said.

He also thinks it will be a challenge for dock developers to install the docks they’ve proposed.

“There’s all the stuff behind the scenes,” Bernstein said. “Electric, sewer, water, natural gas if they need it, Internet. All the things that you need to run a business today has to be brought down there because they’ve taken it all out.”

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