Belle of Louisville losing hundreds of thousands of dollars

A Louisville icon is struggling to stay afloat financially. The Belle of Louisville has lost hundreds of thousands of dollars this year alone. At the age of 97, the Belle is the oldest operating Mississippi River steamboat in the world. To Linda Harris, the Belle's CEO, the ship has a mystique all its own.

"You go back and you listen to her paddlewheel, and there is a heartbeat," Harris said. "I think she has a heart and a soul."

But if things don't change the Belle may soon be on life support.

"It's been very hard for me here knowing we're not making a profit," Harris said.

Funded by the Louisville Metro government, the Belle hasn't made a profit since 2008. In 2009, she lost $80,000 and the losses totaled $84,000 last year. This year the Belle is projected to lose $253,000. More than half of that is a result of spring flooding that canceled eight weeks worth of events.

"It's been the worst since I've been here, in regard to being just dead in the water," Harris said.

More rough waters lie ahead as costs continue to mount. This year the city had to shell out $233,000 to pay for dry dock maintenance; which is required to be done every five years. Another expense is replacement parts for the Belle. They have to be custom built because no one makes them anymore.

The Belle uses 80 gallons of gas per hour. In the next five years, boilers pitted with corrosion will have to be replaced at a cost of $500,000 to $900,000. Harris hopes grants and fundraisers will cover part of that, but the rest will have to be paid for by the city.

Mayor Greg Fischer calls the Belle of Louisville a symbol of the city and a tourist destination. But at a time when he is trying to control spending, Fischer said there is a limit to how much money the Belle can lose.

"These are all nice things to have," Fischer said, "but if the budget ever got so extreme that we have to say we can't have any more 'nice to haves' then the Belle would certainly be looked at."

Right now Fischer doesn't believe the city is at that point. Last year the city installed air conditioning to help business during the summer. Harris said they are also increasing the marketing budget to try and draw bigger crowds.

"I don't think they're going to let anything happen to her," Harris said. "She is a treasure."

In 2002, the city hired a private company that specializes in cruise boat management to run the Belle, but the city ended up suing Hornblower Marine in New Albany over a dispute about who was responsible to cover the ships losses. That case is still being hashed out in court.

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