Bon Voyage To The Queen?

It fits, somehow. Cunard Line Ltd.'s legendary Queen Elizabeth 2, now in its 25th year, ran aground in a channel near Martha's Vineyard on Aug. 7, landing the luxury ocean liner in dry dock for a month or more. Meanwhile, another Cunard ship, the Queen Mary, which hasn't sailed in 25 years, is dangerously close to coming unmoored.

On Aug. 24, bidding for the Queen Mary will close, sealing the fate of the venerable lady that has become the symbol of California's City of Long Beach. City elders have been trying to figure out what to do with the stately icon ever since Walt Disney Co., which operates the ship as a floating hotel and tourist attraction for the city, announced in March that it would invoke a contractual escape clause. It walks away from its money-losing, 55-year lease at the end of next month. "For 25 years, it has been a financial elephant around our necks," says Mayor Ernie Kell, who wants to sell the ship. "And if Disney can't make it work, I don't think anyone can."

BALLOT TEST. But the Long Beach City Council wants to keep old Mary, and it has even engineered a way to put the question to the public. A study commissioned by the city suggested these alternatives for the ship: sink, scrap, or sell it--or allow gambling aboard, which would generate enough revenue to ensure profitable operations. As a result, the city's November ballot will include a measure that would authorize a card casino. "You don't have many poker advocates in Long Beach," says Councilman Warren Harwood, "but you have a lot of Queen Mary advocates."

The question may be moot if the city can sell the ship--which could happen. Laughlin (Nev.) gaming czar Don Laughlin is rumored to be interested in towing Mary to Gulfport, Miss., to be the centerpiece of a casino and convention complex he would like to build there. A Japanese group, hoping to skirt Tokyo's exorbitant land prices, wants to anchor the ship in Tokyo Bay and use it as a hotel. "The rooms are on the small side," says Kell, "but so are most hotel rooms in Tokyo."

At least one bidder thinks he can make a go of it in Long Beach. Joseph F. Prevratil ran the Queen Mary from 1981 until his employer, Wrather Corp., was sold to Disney in 1988. "We used to throw off $5 million to $7 million a year in positive cash flow," he says. Prevratil, now an independent contractor and project manager for the $95 million expansion of the nearby Long Beach Convention Center, is readying his bid.

Disney's desertion couldn't have come at a worse time for the city. Southern California is mired in its worst recession in 60 years, and Long Beach has been particularly hard hit. The U.S. Navy is shutting down its base and hospital there, and there's talk of turning the hospital into a prison. Its shipyard is still operating, but even that's in trouble as the Navy funnels more business to a competing facility in San Diego. McDonnell Douglas Corp., by far the city's largest employer, has slashed its work force to 36,000 from 53,000 two years ago, and the company said in July it would release an additional 4,000 to 5,000 workers by the end of the year.

WALKING THE PLANK. Meanwhile, tourists have started showing up at the Queen Mary in droves again--some because Disney has slashed the admission price to $10 from $17.95, others to pay their last respects. Older visitors return to commemorate long-ago transatlantic crossings. Younger ones climb the gangplank to relive memories of wedding banquets or prom nights.

All the hubbub seems to have given Long Beach officials new hope, and a plan unveiled this month for the redevelopment of the city's waterfront could be revamped to include a berth for the noble cruise liner. If not, one wag suggests, it could always be towed to the waters off Martha's Vineyard, a permanent buoy to keep the QE2 off the rocks.

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