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Gators May Sink in Wake of Maritime Museum

   As the 61-year-old USS Razorback travels to its future home on the north shore of the Arkansas River, a North Little Rock business owner wonders what will become of the restaurant he has owned for nearly four years on the riverfront.

Gator's owner Patrick Kelly (photo by Sitton)

Gator’s owner Patrick Kelly (photo by Sitton)

   Gators Bar-ge and Grill owner Patrick Kelly, 45, first purchased the business on Sept. 1, 2000, after previously working as an upholster for Falcon Jet. With help from his wife Kimmra, Kelly invested $209,000 worth of stocks and IRAs to clean up the barge.

   “When I first came in, I knew it was going to be a gamble,” Kelly said. “This place has been through an endless number of owners who never made it because they never worked it. (The boat) was run-down, with every room painted in different colors. It was a piece of junk. We painted the boat on the inside, and the owner painted it on the outside. We want to show the city and the people that we want to be an attraction, an asset, rather than a liability. We’ve changed the appearance 100 percent to say we’re trying.”

   However, Kelly did not foresee working on a month-to-month lease. While Gators once had a long-term lease, Kelly said North Little Rock Mayor Pat Hays said it expired once barge-owner Hank Birch sold the expedition paddle boat, The Spirit.

   “I’m beating a dead horse,” Kelly said. “(Mayor Hays) says this chunk of land is too valuable to lock up with long-term rent. I did some research from Missouri to Louisiana – really any federally-regulated waters – the cities that brought in an establishment like mine look at it as an asset. They don’t even pay any darn rent.”

Near Proposed Museum

   Gators lies docked near the site of a proposed $15 million Arkansas Inland Maritime Museum on the Arkansas River. Located within one mile of the intersection of Interstate 30 and Interstate 40, conservative estimates put attendance to the proposed museum in the range from 114,962 to 135,250 visitors per year. The museum plan calls for possibly up to three vessels alongside three barges moored end-to-end just west of the Interstate 30 bridge. More information on the museum can be found on the Web at http://www.northlr.org/maritime-museum/ and at http://www.geocities.com/aimm394.

ss394   The 312-foot USS Razorback (SS-394), the longest-serving submarine in history, will be featured at the museum. Following the dedication of the $262 million Montgomery Point Lock and Dam in southeastern Arkansas on July 16, the submarine will head upstream for its July 18 homecoming dedication in North Little Rock’s Riverfront Park where the Delta Queen has docked in the past. While officials expect pre-ceremony events to begin around 2 p.m., the USS Razorback should arrive between 5 and 6 p.m. Tentative plans include a speech by Mayor Hays and fireworks after dark. Robin Alexander from the North Little Rock Visitors Bureau said about 90 veterans from the USS Razorback and other submarines are scheduled to attend.

   Named after a reddish whale, the USS Razorback served two years in World War II where it earned five battle stars. It entered Tokyo Harbor with 11 other submarines to take part in the formal surrender of Japan in Tokyo Bay in 1945, and remains one of two existing submarines from that event.

   The USS Razorback then served on secretive Cold War patrols off the coast of Russia in the early 1960s. It later served in the Vietnam War, earning four Vietnam service medals and becoming the only submarine to earn battle ribbons in both World War II and Vietnam. The United States sold the submarine to Turkey in 1970, where it served in the Turkish navy another 31 years as the Murat Reis, named after an ancient sea captain, until being decommissioned after more than 58 years of activity. North Little Rock acquired it last year from Turkey for $37,500 in salvage costs, paid by Little Rock investment firm Stephens Inc. as part of a $400,000 contribution to bring the USS Razorback to North Little Rock. Details on its trip from Turkey can be found on the city’s Web site at http://northlittlerock.ar.gov/maritime-museum/news-clips/.

USS Hoga at Pearl Harbor

USS Hoga at Pearl Harbor

   The museum will also feature a tugboat that served at Pearl Harbor. The 100-foot-long USS Hoga (named after the Sioux Indian word for “fish”) moved cargo freighters, assisted ships in and out of berths and carried firefighting equipment for the 14th Naval District. It won a special citation from Admiral Chester Nimitz for its rescue work during the Dec. 7, 1941, Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor and later served as a firefighting boat for the city of Oakland, Calif., from 1948 to 1996. It currently sits in a U.S. Navy storage harbor in Suisun Bay, Calif. Secretary of the Navy Gordon R. England announced March 25 that the historic tugboat would be donated to the Arkansas Inland Maritime Museum. The USS Hoga will not arrive with the USS Razorback, but should be here by fall, North Little Rock media specialist Denver Peacock said. In a May 31 article in the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette, Hays said it was natural to acquire both the USS Razorback and the USS Hoga.

   “It seemed like fate had at least given us a chance to acquire two very significant vessels that bookend the Second World War,” he said.

Outside the Plan

   Kelly proposed having Gators as part of the museum, but thus far has had no response. Gators is housed in The Patriot, a barge built in 1939.

   “Why doesn’t (Hays) include it in his maritime museum?” Kelly asked. “While the war was being fought, this boat was going up and down the river delivering goods, and making sure people stayed in business.”

   Kelly said Gators has provided $134,000 in revenue to the city of North Little Rock from taxation, license renewal, and utilities since he’s owned the restaurant. He claimed that Gators provides one of the few businesses opened in downtown North Little Rock in the evenings.

gatorsfront   “After 5:30 p.m., this (downtown) dies,” he said. “We’re the only thing that brings people to this side of the river. They might stop for gas, coke or cigarettes at the service station once they leave here. That’s bringing revenue to the city. It’s frustrating, I’ll tell you.”

   Kelly said he believes the business is being judged by his appearance. A big man, Kelly sports tattoos over his body and a bandana on his head. Videos on the Web site feature “sweet rides” as well as Pat and Kimmra’s wedding vows. Though many patrons ride motorcycles, Kelly said that should not stop the city from giving Gators a long-term lease.

   “(Hays) made the comment that we’re running a biker bar down here,” he said. “I tell people this is not a bar or a restaurant, but a fun place to come. The mayor doesn’t take the time to see what we’ve done here or the clientele that we bring in. The bikes coming into this place are owned by professionals from doctors to lawyers to construction workers. Just because you have a motorcycle doesn’t make you an outlaw.”

   Kelly said officers of the North Little Rock Police Department come in often, but not because of trouble caused by the clientele.

gatorspatio   “They can pull the police report. (The police department) keep our parking lot safe because they believe in us,” he said. “It’s not like you have a bunch of worthless individuals running around starting trouble. We don’t have that. The wonderful people who come here like the overall atmosphere. They come as they are. These people are my friends. If other people would take the time to see that, see the clientele, they’d grant us a long-term lease.”

   Kelly said Gators has raised in excess of $50,000 for organizations including the North Little Rock Mission, March of Dimes, Toys for Tots, the Muscular Dystrophy Association, the Battered Women’s Shelter and the Humane Society, as well as various churches. Events including Bikers Against Child Abuse provide bike enthusiasts the opportunity to ride in support of a cause. Over 180 motorcyclists rode in the Jimmy H. White Foundation Ride the last two years in honor of the deceased policeman. On July 11, Gators will sponsor a ride for 3-year-old Jayla Kramer, a little girl diagnosed with leukemia.

   “When anybody comes to ask for help, we come to the plate to do what’s best,” Kelly said. “We even do church here (the second and fourth Sunday’s of every month) for people like myself who feel uncomfortable going other places. It says in the Bible that church is an assembly of two or more people in His name. It’s not a building.”

Hoping for Reassurance

   Kelly said he does not know what Hays wants to do with Gators’ spot on the riverfront. Though he has heard rumors of a possible hotel in the area, Kelly noted that little space exists because of the retaining wall winding down the North Little Rock riverfront.

   “They can’t really build anything along the riverfront because of the flood plain,” he said. “What are you going to put here? What can you put here? Anything’s that’s going to be here will have to be a water vessel. I don’t know what (Hays) would want down there, except for this place to be more beautiful. But I don’t have the money to do it. If it looked like the Isle of Capri, they’d be happy with it. But who has that kind of money to do it? I don’t.”

   Adding to the pressure is Birch’s insistence that Kelly sign a long-term lease. Kelly is not willing to sign a long-term lease without knowing for certain how long he would be able to operate his business there. Kelly said Birch wants to sell the Patriot for $350,000 and retire.

   “He’s an old guy who deserves the right to retire,” Kelly said. “That’s why he wants to sell the boat. I can’t afford to buy it. I’d love nothing more than somebody with deep pockets to take the boat and buy it. Eventually the city has to see that it has a value for drawing people here.”

   If the lease is revoked, Kelly said he has neither the funds nor the means to move the boat to another location on the river. While it will have to be moved if the city dictates, Kelly said it allegedly cost nearly $80,000 to move to its current location. Not only must the boat be moved, but also the plumbing and electricity. Kelly said he believes a major investor may be the only thing to sway the City Council to give Gators more than a month-to-month lease.

The USS Razorback sits outside Emerald Park, but Gator's closed it's doors shortly after this article appeared.  (Photo by Sitton)

The USS Razorback sits outside Emerald Park, but Gator’s closed it’s doors shortly after this article appeared. (Photo by Sitton)

   “If the right person got in here, it can be a gold mine not only for the individual owning the boat, but also for the city,” he said. “I truly believe that or I wouldn’t have stuck it out for so long.”

   Meanwhile, Kelly said he heard Hays is tired of talking about Gators. (Hays was unavailable to talk for this article). He asked the mayor what type of establishment would gain a long-term lease, but he said Hays had no answer.

   “(Hays) said at the last council meeting that he had no intention of moving us for awhile. But that ‘for awhile’ … that’s not too reassuring,” Kelly said. “I do know by us not being able to operate with the ease of mind from a long-term lease, it’ll cause a corporation to go under as well as a husband and wife who worked their butt off to get it where it is.”

Note: Articles found at http://www.northlr.org/maritime-museum/Press-Room/ were used for background information for this article.

This article originally appeared in the July 1-31, 2004 issue of the Little Rock Free Press.

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