Riverboat owner views Mississippi River at its best, worst

Sunday, June 26, 2011 | 4:29 p.m. CDT

HANNIBAL — Steve Terry, owner and pilot of the Mark Twain Riverboat, will be the first to admit that the flood-levee system completed in 1993 has proven its own worth over and over again.

"The flood wall has been a plus; it has definitely saved property downtown and helped us revitalize Main Street and side streets off of that," Terry said. "People are more confident to put a business in there now because of it."

While he supports the flood wall and the associated business revitalization, he looks at the flood wall from a unique business vantage point. His business operates on the "other" side of the flood wall.

"If you were with me on a normal day at the city front, I'm proud to see people who take advantage of our parks," Terry said. "Nipper Park, you know you have lots of people walking every day, exercising — I think they say its six laps equal a mile. You see some regulars, and every once in a while you see new people filtering in. And you go into Kiwanis Park right across the Burlington Northern Santa Fe track, and you'll see families with their little kids playing on the playground equipment.

"Then later in the day you might see a bunch of teenagers playing a football game over there. The people are walking through Glascock's Landing and through the park there, enjoying the Schwartz's work they've done to beautify that one end. And you see people standing on the fence, they're just watching the river go by, or they might be sitting on a park bench. Sometimes they will stretch a blanket out on the grass and just lay there and enjoy the riverfront."

But once the river rises and the gates go in, "The folks that use the marina can't use the marina to put their boats in," he said. "We can't use the parks, and we can't use the boat club. They can park on the other side of the flood wall, and they can crawl over — to a point. Once the water gets up a littler higher, they won't have that luxury to be able to walk over."

During the best of times, Terry's role as riverboat pilot on Hannibal's riverfront is personally satisfying.

"For some people, it's something to do. Recently, we had a gentleman on board, and I want to say he was from California. Very well-read in Mark Twain. For him, to be able to experience the river, he was like a little kid. Just so excited. We talked about different books and his favorites. I invited him in to steer the boat, and he politely declined. He said, 'No, I appreciate your offer, but I would like to save that for my next trip.'"

During the worst of times, Terry feels frustrated by nature's wrath. Each time the river rises to the point that the flood gates go in, his expenses climb as his customer base drops.

Terry said the access to the high water docking site north of town is actually "quite picturesque. It's just off the beaten path so far that we have to work really, really hard to get the word out to make sure the downtown merchants know that we are open so they are not giving misinformation to the folks. I know its confusing for everybody. Shoot, it's confusing to me."

Terry pointed out that the riverboat is the only true business that operates on the river side of the flood wall. "If they put in two gates, we lose a significant portion of our business, if they put all the gates in and we move upstream, we lose a much more significant part of our business. It's harder to find us. It's the out of sight, out of mind principle, I guess," he said.

In order to encourage people to drive to the Broadway riverfront entrance when the Center Street gate is closed, "I stood on the other side of the (Center Street) crossing, and I gave them directions. They drive up and ask, 'How do we get to the riverfront?' Well, if you'll go back to Main Street and make a left, go to the light and make a left, and drive all the way to the riverfront and make another left, you'll get to the riverboat, and they say, 'OK.' Well, how do you build a sign that says all that? It's kinda crazy. We're a unique business. We're different than the solid storefront that you see on Main Street or Broadway or the shopping centers. In a business sense we're the same, but at the same time, it's a different thing."

The major difference is the riverboat's reliance upon the weather. "A few years ago, we went for several years and never moved out, and they never put the flood gates in. Now this weather pattern has shifted, and if we can get this jet stream to move just a little bit one way or another, it will resolve us and bother someone else for a day or two or five," Terry said.

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