Maiden Voyage looking for a home in Marquette

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Captain Robert Vavra is hoping his Maiden Voyage tour boat can find a home on the Marquette riverfront. (NIT file photo)

By Audrey Posten, North Iowa Times Editor

“I’m looking for a home.”

Those were the words of Robert Vavra at Marquette’s regular council meeting May 16, as he sought input from the city about operating his Mississippi River tour boat out of the community.

“I’m the last working eco-tourism boat from St. Louis to Winona,” shared Vavra, who’s been providing river boat tours in the area for 11 years. “I’m looking for a place to expand, a place to work. I’d like to come to Marquette to improve what I have now.”

Last year, Vavra built a “sucker shack,” a screened-in, floating restaurant to provide food to his patrons, in addition to a tour of the river.

“My whole thing is to help people understand the history of the river,” he said. “I want to serve carp, buffalo and catfish in a setting that’s narrated. This is something special.”

According to Vavra, his current location on the McGregor riverfront has limited him space-wise. Due to other nearby restaurants, he’s also unable to open his floating restaurant to the public as a full-fledged business. He’d like a more permanent home, and said he felt a piece of land on the Marquette riverfront, next to the Steven and Ruth Gaede property (between the boardwalk and fishing pier), would be a good fit. 

Vavra said he’s spoken with the Gaedes, and they also sounded interested in letting him utilize some of their property. By doing so, he noted, that would give them a commercial identity, something required by the city to maintain a residence on the riverfront.

“He has a federal dock permit,” explained Vavra, who said he could also possibly lease sewer and water. “It’s the perfect place. I’d be in charge of my own dock.”

Vavra said he’s looked at other locations, but “there are no other options. Prairie has nothing, and McGregor has nothing to lease or buy.” If Marquette doesn’t work out, Vavra said he may have to move, adding that he’s also considered speaking with the city of Dubuque.

A number of individuals in the audience came in support of Vavra, touting his contribution to local tourism.

“Robert is an anchor of the community,” said Clayton County Development Group Executive Director Darla Kelchen. “The money he brings in to the area is phenomenal.”

Bob Moses, executive director of the Prairie du Chien Chamber of Commerce, shared that river boat tours are one of the biggest requests he hears when tourists stop at the chamber.

Vavra estimated that he provides tours to around 5,000 people per year, and helps connect them with other businesses and attractions in the area.

“I think we all appreciate the value of your service, and it helps to involve the Gaede property,” remarked councilman John Ries, “but we need to be careful in that area. To lease the riverfront, it needs to benefit everybody. We want room for everybody.”

Mayor Larry Breuer agreed, noting that, “The city has spent a lot of money to develop tourism.” He felt Vavra’s operation would contribute to that, but added, “We have to make it work with other riverfront uses.”

The council agreed to refer the matter to the dock commission for review, then discuss it further at the next meeting.

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