PALESTINE—City manager Wendy Ellis didn’t just float an idea by city council, she swept them right out of their chairs like a tsunami by announcing, “I have purchased a used cruise ship which will serve as the anchor for our downtown tourism efforts.” Mayor Therrell Thomas leaped to his feet screaming, “I told you greater things were yet to come, but this, oh my God, this, this is the greatest thing of all!” Four of the six council members, along with representatives of the Chamber of Commerce and the visionary group Palestine Tomorrow, gave Ellis a standing ovation, while council members Vickey Chivers and Vernon Denmon remained seated displaying no outward emotion. The city’s tourism director handed out souvenir life jackets encouraging council members “to try them out.” Councilman Denmon bluntly remarked, “I will, I need a new toilet seat cushion.” Denmon has been a vocal critic of the city’s spending habits, especially during the last six months.
The city manager proceeded to outline the details of the purchase informing council she had managed to hide the entire process from everyone including the city’s finance director. “I have a relative in the ocean-marine industry,” she stated, “and he alerted me to this unique opportunity. Most new ships cost from six to eight hundred million dollars which I knew was completely out of the realm of possibility, but, he told me there was a used cruise ship in exceptional shape for one hundred million dollars. I drove down to the Port of Houston and couldn’t believe what a great buy it was, it is truly a rare find indeed and we are so fortunate to be able to take advantage of such a once in a lifetime opportunity.” Mayor Thomas once again chimed in, “Wendy, this is exactly why the majority of us hired you. For me personally, I have put my full faith, trust and reputation behind your efforts and you never cease to amaze me. I’m blown away, I’m your biggest fan, I am humbled in your presence.”
Ellis went on to explain that once she had paid off the debt for Christmas decorations there was plenty of room on her city issued credit card to make this purchase. “The possibilities are endless,” she said, “we can use that anchor from the steamboat Ruthven (currently located at the corner of Magnolia and Spring) to tie our local Trinity River history to this new ship.” Ellis pointed to the obvious use of the ship for the Christmas season noting the city can truly be “decked out for the holidays” then added, “I get frostbite just thinking how much winter fun we’ll have”.
The city and the Chamber of Commerce have teamed up the past couple of years to host a winter festival and Ellis reminded council of recent criticisms raised from the purchase of an artificial ice skating rink used for that event. She advised council, “My plan is to utilize the upper deck of the ship when the rink is in use. I feel it will be a study in contrasts, I mean, an ice skating rink on a cruise ship in East Texas, who would have thought?”
Mayor Thomas continued to display profound amazement as Ellis laid out the full plan, “We will offer artificial cruises to nowhere. A ship is like a small city, it’s self-contained with guest rooms, restaurants, bars, shops, conference rooms, theaters, entertainment and more. There has been talk in the past of turning downtown into an outdoor mall, I’ve taken that concept a step further and brought a huge indoor mall to downtown, it just happens to be in the form of a large ship.”
And large it is! The ship measures eight hundred fifty-five feet in length, its tonnage is listed at eighty-two thousand five hundred and it has a guest capacity of two thousand and fifty-six. There are 10 passenger decks and one crew deck which Ellis said will be used as an additional storage facility and office space. She also said the police department could be housed onboard and suggested it would be cute if the new uniforms were designed with a sailor theme in mind. Ellis also predicted this would become a goldmine for local photographers like Stuart Whitaker as “activities will be happening twenty-four hours a day, seven days a week, so the photo ops will be plentiful.”
Ellis concluded her presentation by saying, “A lot of people locally like to compare us to Galveston and everyone knows we have more Victorian homes than they do, but they have ships and they have an ocean and though we may never have an ocean,” she said with a wink, “we now have a ship so they better look out, it’s anchors away for us as we’ll be able to attract tourists who want to experience a few days onboard a cruise ship and they’ll no longer have to make that long trip down to Galveston, they can come to Palestine and have the trip of a lifetime.” To which the mayor joked, “And not worry about seasickness.”
Councilman Steve Presley commented, “Wendy, I think it’s a wonderful idea. It’s great and I can take this a step further and see the day when we have a man-made waterway connecting downtown to the depot at the Texas State Railroad.” Ellis jumped on his idea, “Exactly, the waterway could be utilized by tenders that would ferry passengers back and forth. Basically, it would be like taking a shore excursion on an actual cruise.” Presley asked, “can we name the ship the SS TSRR?” Ellis giggled and started to respond saying, “I haven’t come up with a name yet,” but was interrupted when a familiar voice yelled out from the back of the room, “Titanic!” The voice was that of local resident, James Smith, a well-known critic of city administrators. Ignoring the comment, Ellis continued, “As I was saying, there’s no name yet, but we’ll be seeking input, maybe holding a contest and offering the winner a free one week artificial cruise on our new ship.”
Prior to adjourning, Mayor Thomas asked if anyone had any more questions and councilwoman Chivers quietly muttered, “It’s a done deal, no use wasting any more time.” Thomas commended Ellis for taking it upon herself to make such a wise investment for the city and for “keeping her eye on the big picture.” Ellis acknowledged his remarks saying, “Thank you, our ship is finally coming in and this is almost too good to be true, I feel like it’s all just a dream.”