In such a situation, the captain is the sole authority in deciding whether or not conditions are too rough to continue. Each casino-boat captain must be Coast Guard-certified, and if his actions are deemed negligent, he can lose his license. Of course, if he heads for shore every time the wind blows, he can lose his job.
The sole authority at SunCruz is owner Konstantinos "Gus" Boulis, a Greek native who immigrated to Canada in 1968 and began working at a Toronto sub shop. He learned English gradually but rose through the ranks quickly, becoming a well-paid executive by the late '70s. He soon moved to Key West, and in 1990 he started the Miami Subs chain of fast-food restaurants, of which there are now 198. But Boulis, age 49, isn't only into subs. Over the last couple of decades, he's invested in casino boats, hotels, and restaurants throughout South Florida and the Florida Keys.
He's also racked up thousands of dollars in fines. In 1993, for example, when he was building a resort hotel in Key Largo, the state Department of Environmental Regulation (now known as the Department of Environmental Protection) fined him $22,900 for illegally building beaches and destroying the shoreline.
Earlier this month Monroe County took Boulis' SunCruz to court. Since 1994, when the company began offering cruises out of Key Largo, nearby residents have complained about increased traffic and noise generated by the boat. They also claim that on several occasions SunCruz boats have crashed into docks and run into smaller boats, according to Garth Coller, a Monroe County land-use attorney. The county claimed that, although the boat operates from Boulis' marina, SunCruz has violated the law by running a business without a permit.
"His assertion is that he can put anything he goddamn wants in his marina, and he is not subject to any permits," Coller says.
But the hearing officer, David Kirwan, found no wrongdoing, saying that, according to Monroe County law, casino boats do not need permits.
Seventy-five miles north, Hollywood residents face identical problems, only they feel it's the local government, not the law, that's working against them.
The battle began in August 1995, when the owner of Martha's Supper Club on the Intracoastal asked the city for more parking than zoning regulations allowed. In a show of good will, neighborhood residents didn't object. A few days later, a SunCruz boat docked at the restaurant's marina, and ever since then, residents have been fighting to get rid of it.
"There's sort of this overall concern here that he's going to change this nice beach community into a mecca for gambling," says Larry Gierer, an activist who moved out of Hollywood because he was tired of fighting development.
Less than a hundred yards from the SunCruz dock along the Intracoastal is a community of small homes and inns that cater to tourists seeking a quiet seashore vacation. But the Hollywood boat, which is much bigger than the SunCruz V, and attracts a younger, rowdier clientele, has altered the environment. When the boat pulls into the dock at about 1 a.m., the quiet neighborhood is suddenly overrun by noisy, in many cases drunken, passengers who disembark en masse, all of them searching for their cars.
Much to the chagrin of nearby residents, Boulis has proposed building a multistory parking garage for SunCruz customers. At present many of them park illegally, simply because there are not enough public and private parking-lot spaces for everybody.
"Certainly the city has done everything [it] can in accommodating [SunCruz]," Welsch states. "I'm just not sure what they give to the city that makes [the city] bend over backward for them."
In truth Welsch has a theory. In Hollywood, Boulis is planning a $50 million project, referred to as "Diamond on the Beach": a seventeen-story hotel and retail complex expected to bring about $120,000 in property taxes and 640 jobs to the city. Mayor Mara Giulianti and some of the city commissioners are so enamored with this plan, Welsch says, that they don't want to rock the boat by antagonizing SunCruz.
"One would almost believe that he is holding a gun to their head because he's got the Diamond on the Beach hotel, and they want the Diamond on the Beach hotel," Gierer says.
The mayor disagrees. In an interview with New Times on April 17, she said that she'd been so busy running for office earlier in the year that she wasn't able to concentrate on the SunCruz issue. Now that she has more time, she promised to meet with Boulis and discuss both the casino and the progress of the hotel. She said that, if it were up to her, there wouldn't be casino boats in the city.