RICHMOND -- Muhammed Ali, the one-time boxing great who floated like a butterfly in the ring, is now floating a new idea -- modular hotels that would be built in Singapore, towed halfway around the world, then erected on barges in the Moscow River in the Soviet capital.
Ali, a part-time resident of Charlottesville, is an investor in the floating hotels, to be called "Inflotels," being promoted by Joel W. Harris, a former top aide to L. Douglas Wilder when the Virginia governor was the state's lieutenant governor.
Richard Hirschfeld, Ali's Charlottesville attorney, said he and Ali presented information about the water-based hotels to Soviet President Mikhail Gorbachev during a meeting at the Soviet Embassy during the recent summit.
Before the hotel proposal can be officially presented to the Soviets, however, Ali, Harris and their associates must raise $70 million from investors to finance the scheme.
The plan is to build a pair of 200-room hotels in Singapore and tow them via the Indian and Atlantic oceans and Baltic Sea up the Moscow River, then to the Soviet capital, where the barges would be moored permanently in the central part of the city.
According to Harris, it is quicker and more economical to build the hotels in Singapore and tow them to Moscow than to go through the expense and difficulty of undertaking such a project with Soviet workers and materials. Because the hotels would be of modular construction, the barges carrying them could pass under bridges along the way, and structures would be assembled later in Moscow, where they would stand -- or float -- three and four stories tall, he said.
The hotel project is only one of several business ventures that occupies Harris's energies these days. Last year, he helped form a Virginia company, UniMed Corp., to construct incinerator facilities for the disposal of medical wastes. Harris said UniMed also is planning to market low-fat "slim" beef from Swiss cattle.
Harris's business dealings first came to public attention last year, when he was serving as a consultant to Wilder's gubernatorial campaign after a stint as chief of staff for the then-lieutenant governor. In August, he severed his connections with the campaign amid speculation that some of his business dealings might have embarrassed Wilder.
News stories at the time reported that two of Wilder's children had been partners with Harris in various enterprises, including a company called Wine and Beer Warehouse Inc., and that Harris and the governor were investors together in a Pennsylvania insurance company of which Wilder was chairman.
The governor's son, L. Douglas Wilder Jr., remains a partner in Wine and Beer Warehouse. The company operates four retail stores in the Richmond area, and Harris expects to take the firm public later this summer to raise money for expansion into the Hampton Roads area of Virginia. Ali, who met Harris during a visit to Wilder's office several years ago, also is an investor in the liquor firm.
Ali comes to the Soviet venture with some experience in the lodging field. Attorney Hirschfeld acknowledged that the ex-champ's first hotel investment, in the 300-room Pavilion Tower in Virginia Beach, failed. The hotel since has been taken over by the Radisson group. Hirschfeld and a Saudi Arabian sheik also were investors.
"But this one will happen," Hirschfeld said. "It has the right group of people behind it, the financial wherewithal and the blessing of the Soviet government."
Under terms of an agreement signed June 8, UniMed would own 50 percent of the partnership. VVO Sudoimport, a division of the state-owned Moscow River Shipping Co., would own 47 percent, and the builders, Jurong Shipyard Ltd. and Sembawang Bethlehem Pte. of Singapore, would own 3 percent.
Harris said preliminary talks have been held with the Hilton and Omni chains about operating the hotels, although Harris said UniMed might try to operate the hotels itself. In either case, they could encounter competition from several major American hotel chains. Radisson last week announced plans to open the first American-managed hotel in Moscow later this year with 430 rooms and 165 suites for foreign tourists and business executives.