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Queen Mary's bankruptcy casts ship, Long Beach tourism adrift

The Queen Mary luxury liner, which sank over the years from monarch of thesea to tourism tool, has become a royal headache.

The owner of the lease to operate the 72-year-old ship and her 365-room on board hotel was forced into Chapter 11 bankruptcy last year in a dispute over $3.4 million in back rent with the city of Long Beach, which purchased the Queen Mary in 1967 to help it compete for visitors with nearby Los Angeles. Now, a court-appointed trustee is trying to sell the 66-year lease and rights to develop 45 acres (18 hectares) of land near the ship, which once carried Winston Churchill, Fred Astaire and Bob Hope in Art Deco elegance across the North Atlantic. „The ship has been pilfered,” said Traci Wilson-Kleekamp, a former Long Beach activist. „It's falling apart.” The vessel's engines and boilers are gutted. Pigeons nest in portholes, and seagull droppings dot the fading teak decks. The Queen Mary, named after the wife of King George V, transported troops during World War II and dominated the trans-Atlantic passenger trade with the Queen Elizabeth for almost two decades. „I understand the „coolness” of staying aboard a great luxury liner and being a part of its history,” according to a comment about the Queen Mary's hotel posted on tripadvisor.com's Web site. „But be prepared for the reality of it also. It's old. It's run down. It's dark. And it smells funny in there.”

Today, the Queen Mary is perhaps best known as a ghost ship. It offers a year-round tour of supposedly haunted sites, such as a children's playroom where a baby's cries can be heard and a long-empty, first-class pool that has sounds of splashing. The vessel in January will host a three-day „paranormal retreat” for ghost hunters and offer merchandise such as the Queen Mary Boxer Shorts and even the Queen Mary Classic Thong. Last month, the ship was the site of GhostFest Expo 2006, with seminars such as „The Poltergeist Syndrome” and „The Unquiet Dead.” Bankruptcy trustee Howard Ehrenberg, appointed in April, is skeptical about ghosts aboard the Queen Mary. „I haven't seen a single one,” he said. Since its retirement, the Queen Mary has been moored near the harbor of Long Beach, the second-busiest port in the US The city of 461,564 residents long has bristled at its second-class status in the shadow of its glitzy neighbor to the north. Los Angeles, home to Hollywood, is California's top tourist destination. Los Angeles County, including Long Beach, had 25 million visitors in 2005, who spent $12.9 billion.

Long Beach, with 5 million visitors, has tried to raise its profile. Its largest event is the Long Beach Grand Prix, a road race that draws an estimated 300,000 people over three days. The Queen Mary hasn't fared as well, averaging about 1.2 million visitors a year and annual revenue of $36 million. The ship shares the neighborhood with container trucks, cranes, oil pumpers, parking lots, a Carnival Corp. Cruise terminal and a geodesic dome that once housed Howard Hughes's Spruce Goose. The dome has been half empty since the aircraft was bought and moved several years ago. Joseph Prevratil has run the Queen Mary on and off for the past quarter century. He said he has done much to improve its finances since taking over the lease in 1993, after Walt Disney Co. scuttled plans for a theme park. Prevratil now is blamed by the city for putting the Queen Mary in limbo. There's a floor price of $38 million for the lease and development rights. Among other suggestions that have been dismissed, an unidentified Arab sheik has offered to haul the Queen Mary to a desert.

Long Beach Mayor Bob Foster said last month he was encouraged by the settlement and looked forward to the „ultimate resolution.” A city spokesman didn't respond to a request for further comment. The settlement requires Prevatil to use the sale proceeds to pay the city and his creditors. „I went from being the savior of the ship to the guy in trouble with the city,” said Prevratil, sitting behind a desk he says was used by Churchill. Prevatil settled with the city November 21, two years after he accused Long Beach of reneging on a deal to allow him to take a $7 million discount on his monthly rent - $25,000 plus as much as 5% of the ship's yearly revenue. Before the row with the city, Prevatil borrowed as much as $24 million, aiming to develop the neighborhood in a $200 million project. He planned hotels, a science-fiction museum and an ice rink. None of it appeared. His most lucrative inspiration is the annual Halloween ShipWreck, when parts of the ship and parking lot are converted into creepy mazes. This year's event scared up $1.5 million, of which $1 million was profit, he said. With that success, Prevratil says he has yet to see a ghost. „A psychic said the ghosts are afraid of me,” he said. „I'm sure if you ask some of the city people, they'd probably agree with the ghosts.” (Bloomberg)