Condo Barge Would Ply U.S. Inland Waterways

PHOTO: marquette, boat, vessel, ship, david nelsonCourtesy David Nelson
An artist's conception of the Marquette, David Nelson's semi-luxurious vessel.

Ahoy, Tulsa! If a Minnesota developer's dream comes true, cruise passengers' romantic ports of call could soon include those along some 6,600 miles worth of America's inland waterways. Shimmering there off the port bow, in the early morning mist, as Turner might have painted it: Dubuque, Omaha, Tulsa, Pittsburgh.

French canal barging perhaps you've heard of. This isn't it.

French canal barging, as depicted in advertisements, consists of a series of edifying or delicious experiences. One arrives in, say, Beaune, mounts one's bicyclette, and pedals off into town for brie and a baguette.

Were one to arrive in Tulsa aboard the "Marquette"--the $110 million, 200- condominium barge that Minneapolis developer David Nelson hopes to build--instead of the Seine there would be the Mississippi and the Illinois Waterway.

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Author, filmmaker and motivational speaker Jim Stovall--a long time Tulsa resident--describes what one would see:

"Well, you'd come up the Mississippi River, and then you'd get onto the Arkansas River. You'd come into Oklahoma. Just past Muskogee, you'd leave the river and head into a canal--it's not so much a canal, really. It's a big ditch. You'd dock in Catoosa, where there's a ton of warehouses. I can't imagine getting off there as a tourist, because it's a very industrial area."

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Nelson says two things.

First, the "Marquette" might not go all the way to Tulsa. Muskogee might be close enough. You'd get off and take a bus to Tulsa.

Second, getting to see industrial America is part of the charm of traveling by barge, in his view. "It's kind of like you're in the back alley," he says. There are people, he says, who like to see industry in action--and he's one of them. He has 29 years experience as a contractor and developer in commercial, residential and marine construction in the St. Paul area.

The "Marquette" would have charms of its own, including a 24-hr concierge, a lounge, a theater, a 1/2 acre rooftop chipping course for golfers, a grocery store, a restaurant/deli, rental watercraft, whirlpools, a 1/5 mile walking path, a fitness room and a chapel.

Its 185-200 condo units would range in size from 528 to 924 square feet, priced from $299,000 to $499,000. Larger custom designs also would be possible, as would one-half and two-month shares of the condos, which will be 528 to 924 square feet with a kitchen, bedroom and dining room. Cruisers would share the monthly costs of operating the ship, which are estimated at $1,000 to $2,000 depending on the size of the unit.

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"Go look any quality condo development in the U.S.," says Nelson. "That's what we're building. Coast Guard-approved. A fair price. Affordable to anybody in the upper middle class or above."

A vessel made up of condominiums--where, in effect, you own your cabin--is not a new idea.

"The World," a luxurious ocean-going condo cruise ship, first set sail in 2002. Its 165 residences have sold for $700,000 to $10 million. The $1 billion "Utopia," another condo ocean liner, is about three years away from being finished, say its developers.

Nelson doesn't see the "Marquette" as taking a back seat to "The World" or to any other ocean-going condo liner. True, he allows, the barge's shallow draft means it won't be able to take waves. Thus the "Marquette" never will see Venice. But The "World" won't ever see Red Wing, Minnesota.

Robert Burnett, founder and principal of Burnett Partners in Charleston, S.C., is a global advisor to developers of luxury resorts. His experience extends to ships: It was a team led by Burnett, he says, that sold more than $200 million worth of condos onboard "The World."

Burnett tells ABC News, "The challenges of translating exuberant visions such as The "Marquette" into profitable realities can be daunting. The development world--both on land and at sea--is littered with developers who underestimate the complexities of what it takes to finance, market and actually build their visions."

Nelson says so far he has taken deposits of $1,000 each for about 25 percent of the Marquette's units. He won't, he says, begin construction until 90 percent of the units have been sold--a goal he thinks he'll hit by February 2014. After that, building the barge will take another year.

Rome, Illinois, wasn't built in a day.

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