‘A major economic development opportunity:’ Luxury river cruise line to dock ship at former Gretna ferry terminal _lowres

Rendering provided by French America Line This illustration shows the Louisiane in a fall setting. The 150-passenger boat will begin cruising from its new home port in Gretna this September.

A luxury cruise line that recently opened its headquarters on the West Bank of Jefferson Parish soon will begin offering journeys up the Mississippi River from a terminal in Gretna, officials announced Friday.

The voyages are expected to create dozens of jobs locally while helping pay to restart regular ferry service between Gretna and New Orleans, officials said.

In addition, a high-end tourism company handling the cruise line’s marketing, sales and reservations is leaving the West Coast and moving to Jefferson. Officials said it was another sign of the New Orleans region’s sustained popularity as a travel destination.

Offering five- to 10-day cruises on the Mississippi, Ohio, Tennessee, Cumberland and Red rivers, with stops at major cities along the way, French America Line established its headquarters at the Jefferson Economic Development Commission’s Business Innovation Center in Avondale earlier this year.

The line plans to share office space for a time with its marketing and sales affiliate, Uncommon Journeys, which is relocating from Alameda, California, after a quarter-century in business.

The 150-passenger riverboat Louisiane will have more than 60 crew members when it begins cruises in early October, according to officials. It will be based at the downtown Gretna ferry landing that has been underused since regular service across the river to New Orleans was halted a few years ago.

French America Line and Uncommon Journeys said the Louisiane’s arrival and the corporate relocation will provide 30 new land-based jobs and generate an annual payroll of more than $2 million, benefiting a mix of seasonal, hourly and salaried employees.

A cut of the money generated by French America Line’s operations will be earmarked for the eventual development of a new ferry connecting Gretna and New Orleans, officials said.

French America Line’s founder, Christopher Kyte, said he is committed to purchasing everything needed to support his firm locally, from “groceries to flowers to fuel,” all of which was factored into the $58 million economic impact that officials predict for the new company.

The Louisiane previously was known as the Columbia Queen and sailed Oregon’s Columbia River. Using $7.5 million in startup funding derived from personal resources, an investment capital package and government loans, Kyte and French America Line co-owners Ken Grigsby, Kevin Griffin and Christopher Tidmore purchased the Columbia Queen last year with plans to rename it and move it to Gretna.

French America Line said it chose Gretna for the ship’s home port after consulting with Mayor Belinda Constant, former Parish President John Young and the Jefferson Economic Development Commission during a process that began three years ago.

The commission loaned money to move the Louisiane from Oregon to Gretna and helped hammer out the agreement to put the dormant terminal back into commerce.

The Louisiane’s journey from Oregon to the West Bank via the Panama Canal will take about four weeks and conclude in early August, officials said. The ship then will undergo millions of dollars’ worth of refurbishments at Bollinger Quick Repair in Harvey before it begins offering cruises.

Officials described the Louisiane as a “boutique riverboat” that will feature opulent suites and staterooms, two restaurants, three lounges, a full spa and nightly entertainment.

Gov. John Bel Edwards, Parish President Mike Yenni, Jefferson Economic Development Commission head Jerry Bologna, Constant and Young all spoke optimistically Friday about how French America Line and Uncommon Journeys could positively affect various sectors of the local economy.

“This is a major economic development opportunity,” Constant said.