Kalakala's knight in shining armor?

Steve Rodrigues, the elusive and somewhat mysterious purchaser of the Kalakala, has spent a decade proposing ambitious projects in the Northwest that never made the leap from vision to reality.

Earlier this fall, the unemployed civil engineer from Tumwater found himself with an unexpected opportunity he's hoping will propel him from a man of ideas to — finally — the developer of a multimillion dollar project.

A divorced 52-year-old father of two grown children, Rodrigues in October officially became the owner of the once grand art-deco ferry that plied Seattle waters from 1935 to 1967 but has since become a broken, rusted eyesore that's been sitting idle on Lake Union for four years.

He wants to turn the dilapidated hulk into a floating restaurant and museum that will sail between ports-of-call throughout Puget Sound.

At its moorage site on the lake's north end yesterday, Rodrigues promised he would move the ferry from that site by a Nov. 30 deadline.

"I am not a dreamer — dreamers don't make things happen," he said. "I have the world-class team, with the capability of making this happen."

In 1994, Rodrigues left his engineering job with Morrison Knudsen, a construction and engineering firm based at the time in Idaho, to become a private developer. He since has pitched more than half a dozen family-oriented recreational projects with nostalgic themes — from skateboard parks to waterslide attractions — in Montana and Western Washington.

City officials in Butte, Mont., Olympia, Tumwater and Lacey have listened to him and found him to be well-spoken and amicable. But they also say he doesn't appear to have funding for his projects.

"He had good intentions," said Don Peoples, president of the Montana Economic Research and Development Institute in Butte, where Rodrigues wanted to rebuild a nostalgic amusement park from his childhood. "He never had the wherewithal to put anything together. It was like, 'show me the money.' "

Rodrigues acknowledges that the timing and finances of those past projects have been off. But with the Kalakala, he said, the pieces are coming together.

Vision will take millions

Though he won't reveal even basic information about his backers, saying they want to remain anonymous, he says he has gathered a group of private investors to help him realize his vision.

During the three years or so it will take to transform the ferry, Rodrigues wants to construct a prefabricated inflatable structure resembling the Kalakala to function as a floatable special-events center, installed on a barge and floated between ports as a venue for conferences or concerts.

It would also serve as a revenue flow for the real Kalakala's restoration, he said. He also plans to market gold-embossed coins bearing a Kalakala logo as souvenirs and as future admission passes to the boat.

But it will take millions — by his own estimates, about $18.5 million over five years — to complete this vision. In the meantime, he faces more urgent difficulties.

He has only eight more days to find a new home for the Kalakala. The owners of the North Lake Union property where the Kalakala has been moored since 1999 have given Rodrigues until the end of the month to move it.

But before it can be towed away, pallets of paint, oil and fuel must be removed. A temporary moorage, preferably in fresh water, possibly in Lake Washington, must be found.

And the property owners — Jim and Bob Reid and Dan Fiorito — have denied Rodrigues access to the ferry by land, demanding that he get insurance before he transports the hazardous materials over their land because they don't want to be liable for any property damage.

They say they are frustrated and angered. While Rodrigues paid them $6,000 for moorage for October and November, they are still owed back rent from the previous owner, the now bankrupt Kalakala Foundation. They just want the Kalakala out of there.

"We don't care what happens to it. We didn't want it here in the first place," said Jim Reid. "We wish Rodrigues all the luck in the world. But if he wants to cross our property, he needs insurance ... he should have known what he was getting into when he bought that boat."

Christian Lint, a tug-boat contractor Rodrigues has hired to help move the Kalakala, vows that it will be moved on time. Arrangements are being made, Lint said, to put it in a Lake Union dry dock after it undergoes inspections at a temporary site that's not yet been determined.

Rodrigues calls his project for the Kalakala "Lost Horizons." The title comes from a 1937 movie by the same name about a group of people who survive a plane crash in the Himalayas only to discover a secret passage to Shangri-La.

Lost Horizons is about rediscovering something that once gave pleasure to the masses, Rodrigues said.

"The Kalakala was an art-deco ship built to please. It was truly something of great value and represented hope on the horizon," he said.

The Kalakala is not the only project he designed with that theme in mind. His first proposal as a private developer took him back to his childhood roots.

Rodrigues grew up in the mining town of Butte with seven other siblings. The family was poor, Rodrigues said, with the children sometimes left to fend for themselves. One of the happiest places he remembers was a free amusement park called Columbia Gardens.

He remembers well, he said, the park's playground and its carousel, complete with hand-carved horses, a band organ, chariots and an elegant canopy with hand-carved mirror frames and gargoyles.

"Columbia Gardens was an inspiration in my life," he said. "It was the only good thing in the entire community for children and family entertainment."

But after years of losing money, Columbia Gardens was torn down in 1973.

By that time, the Rodrigues family had moved to Idaho. Rodrigues returned to Butte to go to college, earning a degree from Montana College of Mineral Science and Technology in Butte. In 1979, he received a bachelor's degree in civil engineering from Montana State University.

As a civil engineer, he worked for worldwide engineering and construction firms, starting with Morrison Knudsen and later for Bechtel. Among other large-scale projects, he helped oversee the construction of power plants in Western Washington and an airport in Saudi Arabia.

Dan Kunz, a longtime friend who grew up with Rodrigues and also worked at Morrison Knudsen, called Rodrigues a forward-thinker.

"He has bootstrapped himself with his ideas." said Kunz. Though finances have been an issue, "he's got a real knowledge of what it takes to get things done."

With the encouragement of friends and colleagues, Rodrigues quit his job at Morrison Knudsen in 1994 and began pursuing his dreams.

Sometime after the Columbia Gardens redevelopment project fell through, he moved from Butte to the Olympia area, where he has lived for the past five years.

In the late 1990s he pitched several proposals in Lacey, including renovating a long-closed indoor skateboard park and building an indoor recreational facility in the nearby Hawks Prairie area. Robert McGraw, who owns the former indoor skateboard park, said he remembers Rodrigues as a good promoter.

"We couldn't come to terms, but I don't think anything bad of him. It was my property, and I would have been financing it. I would have had to mortgage it. And I couldn't do that."

Rodrigues' most recent proposal was for the old Olympia Brewing building in Tumwater, now owned by the Miller Brewing Co. Up until earlier this year, Miller brewed beer at a facility adjacent to the old brewery.

Tumwater Mayor Ralph Osgood said Rodrigues proposed building a waterpark with "cosmic" bowling and a gondola ride. "It just didn't meet the vision of what we want in our historic district," Osgood said.

Former glory, rough seas

Like its new owner, the Kalakala has seen its share of hardships. After its glory days on Puget Sound, it was eventually converted into a seafood-processing plant that ended up in Alaska, eventually abandoned in mudflats in a cove on Kodiak.

Peter Bevis, a Fremont sculptor, spotted the corroding Kalakala during a fishing trip and fell in love with it. He founded the nonprofit Kalakala Foundation and spearheaded the effort to tow it back to Seattle, moving it to Lake Union, where it was supposed to be turned into Bevis' dream: a waterfront museum and tourist attraction.

But over the years the foundation lost more money than it was able to raise, declaring bankruptcy in March. The ferry's debt totals about $1.8 million, with the majority of it owed to Bevis.

Rodrigues came to own the Kalakala by somewhat of a fluke. At a bankruptcy auction in September, he was outbid by two others.

But the top bidder, an entrepreneur from California, later defaulted on his winning bid of $140,000, and the second-highest bidder then came back with an offer that was less than the original bid of $135,000.

The auctioneer said no.

The ferry was then offered to Rodrigues. Several days later, he wired the bankruptcy trustee a full payment of $136,560, which included taxes and two months' moorage.

Rodrigues remains undaunted by his past disappointments. "I didn't fail, I got stronger with time," he said.

"If I would have broke ground on the wrong projects, I would never be here today."

News researcher Miyoko Wolf contributed to this report.

Rachel Tuinstra can be reached at 206-464-2580 or rtuinstra@seattletimes.com