A businessman wants to turn a Toronto white elephant into a jewel of Hamilton's harbour — and possibly furnish it with a casino.

Don Maga is purchasing an old 85,000-square-foot cruise ship from John Letnik, who operated the boat as Captain John's Harbour Boat Restaurant for more than 30 years. 

"I've got a passion for it," said Maga, a Hamilton resident whose company, Seltomar International, works on product development in China. "I love boats, but obviously this is a very special one."

The City of Toronto shut down Captain John's in 2012. In late June, Letnik admitted he was behind in taxes to several city agencies, including the port authority, and has been looking for a buyer.

Maga wouldn't disclose how much he's paying for the ship. He plans to have it towed to Heddle Marine in Hamilton. Then he'll refurbish it inside and out, and install it as a tourist attraction at the city's Pier 8.

The goal, he said, is to convert the boat into an entertainment venue that would house a casino, adding he's partnered with investors from the United States and China to put together a formal proposal.

Casino debate

Hamilton city council has been debating whether it wants a casino since last year. The Ontario Lottery and Gaming Commission's lease to operate 801 slot machines at Flamboro Downs expires on March 31.

The OLG has instructed the city to pass a motion by March 1 saying whether Hamilton still wants a gaming facility, and if so, where one could be located.

On Monday, a group of Hamilton-based investors staged a glitzy media event at a Hess Village nightclub to bring a $200-million Hard Rock Café-themed hotel and casino to the downtown core.

"I don't do business that way," Maga said. "It's a hell of presentation, but it's kind of loud and bombastic."

He was also critical of the scale of the project, adding it could leave Hamilton with its own white elephant should gambling revenues decline.

"What do you have when it's over? With what I've got ... if casinos dry up, you just pull it up and sail away off into the sunset."

If his casino idea isn't allowed to go ahead, Maga noted, he would still pursue bringing the ship to Hamilton's shores, perhaps configuring it as a venue for live entertainment.

"A casino is in first place right at the moment, but I'm not going to forget the roots of this thing. The roots are having a ship down at the harbour."