Potential bidders for a Mississippi-style riverboat that once offered dinner cruises on the Delaware River near Philadelphia are scheduled to arrive this week from up and down the East Coast for a dockside auction in Canton.
The 140-foot Liberty Belle will go to auction Thursday with a starting bid of just $50,000, said Scott Frank, of Alex Cooper Auctioneers Inc., which is handling the sale.
Frank said he won't speculate on how high the bidding might rise from there, but he expects "someone's going to get a great deal."
Interest in the paddle-wheeler, which was built in 1997 for $3.4 million and had a troubled run as a dining cruise boat in Philadelphia and New Jersey in recent years, has been "heating up" in recent days, thanks in part to the low starting bid, Frank said.
White with light blue and red trim, the boat with its layer-cake decks and railings and decorative 20-foot paddle wheel, is reminiscent of the boats that once plied the Mississippi River and have been entrenched in popular culture for more than a century by authors such as Mark Twain.
The boat can host as many as 400 passengers and features a mezzanine dining area above a full-service galley, as well as two additional dining rooms on the boiler and hurricane decks. A pilothouse sits atop.
"That's a pretty nice-size one," said John Roop, president-elect of the Auctioneers Association of Maryland.
Roop said he has seen auctions of smaller stern-wheelers along the Mississippi and Ohio rivers, but not here.
"They are very unusual for around this area," he said.
Owner Liberty Belle Holdings Inc. could not be reached for comment on the auction. The company made the decision to auction the boat in Baltimore rather than take it back to Philadelphia after it received an estimated $143,900 dry-dock and repair job at General Ship Repair Corp.'s Locust Point yard, Frank said.
Liberty Belle Holdings bought the boat for about $1.4 million about 10 years ago, Frank said.
The boat previously was docked in Burlington, N.J., where the operator was sued by the city for allegedly not paying docking fees and taxes. The operator, Joseph Garvey, could not be reached for comment. The city's mayor, James Fazzone, did not return a request for comment.
Frank said Garvey's problems operating the dining cruise business on the boat in Burlington have nothing to do with the ownership of the boat or the auction this week.
Based on initial interest, the most serious bidders Thursday will likely be those with substantial business interests that relate to the boat's potential as a dining cruise ship, he said.
The new buyer will likely have to invest more money to freshen the boat's decor, he said.
"It needs a new owner with some new energy and new ideas and some new blood to pump into it," he said.
As of Monday, more than 15 groups had viewed the boat, said Frank, who declined to identify potential bidders.
One potential bidder from Miami owns a marina and sees potential in the Liberty Belle as a waterfront restaurant, he said. A potential Boston buyer invests in and then flips big boats. A buyer on the Eastern Shore already owns two boats and a restaurant and is looking to add to the business.
Then again, a retiree from Washington wants a hobby for himself and his grandchildren, and seemed pretty keen on the sale, Frank said. Others were more circumspect.
"They don't always tip their hand and tell me why they're interested," Frank said.
The auction will take place at 11 a.m. Thursday at the dock at 1800 S. Clinton Street in Canton. A deposit in the form of cash or a cashier's or certified check of $25,000 is due at the time of sale. Settlement will be before Sept. 30.
Baltimore Sun reporter Eileen Ambrose contributed to this report.