Ports to cruise ahead with Union Pier plan

The Carnival Fantasy cruise ship docks in Charleston. Charleston City Council on Tuesday dropped wording in its updated tourism plan that would have asked for an alternative to Union Pier as the State Port Authority’s new cruise terminal.

The State Ports Authority will forge ahead with its plan to build a new cruise ship terminal at Union Pier, despite a call to look for alternative sites from many downtown Charleston residents, conservation groups and the city’s Planning Commission.

City Council on Tuesday approved an updated tourism management plan with a unanimous vote. But it didn’t include recommendations from the city’s Planning Commission that city and SPA leaders look for an alternative site for the terminal.

About a dozen citizens commented on the cruise terminal during a public hearing on the tourism plan. Most were opposed to the site at Union Pier.

Kristopher King, executive director of the Preservation Society of Charleston, said his group supports conducting a study on the best site for the terminal. “Successful cities keep their cruise terminals outside historic districts,” he said.

And Randy Pelzer, a member of the Charlestowne Neighborhood Association, said he is concerned about traffic congestion. “And from a traffic standpoint, they have picked the worst location for a cruise terminal.”

Several groups have suggested the terminal be moved slightly north, to the Columbus Street terminal.

But Jim Newsome, SPA’s chief executive officer, said there’s no room at that terminal. “Columbus Street will be an all-freight terminal,” he said. Space there is especially important after Volvo this week announced it would build its first North American manufacturing plant in the Ridgeville area largely because of the area’s proximity to a seaport.

“We have only one location for a new cruise terminal and it’s Union Pier,” Newsome said.

He also said the SPA doesn’t intend to install a power source for cruise ships at Union Pier. Instead, it will rely on Carnival’s plan to install pollution-reducing scrubbers that clean exhaust gas and reduce sulfur dioxide emissions, which should result in cleaner air while the ship runs its engines at port.

Cruise ship supporters have said the industry is an important part of the Lowcountry’s larger tourism economy and a source of jobs.

Opponents said they don’t want to ban all cruise ships, but they want the authority to consider sites other than Union Pier. Legal wrangling over that site — the 60 acres between Market, Washington and Laurens streets and the harbor — has slowed the state’s plans to redevelop the blighted area.

The cruise terminal dominated the discussion on the tourism-management plan.

City leaders, with the help of a 27-member committee, worked since December 2013 to update the plan, which hadn’t been updated since 1998. It strives to balance the needs of a strong tourism industry with residents’ concerns.

Tourism is a huge industry in Charleston. Visitors make up 16 percent of the city’s economy, city planning director Tim Keane has said. And the industry is growing. The city had 2,544 hotel rooms in 1995. Today, it has more than 3,569.

The plan addresses: tourism management and enforcement, visitor orientation, quality of life, special events and mobility and transportation.

Keane also said one of the key parts of the plan is to build a new visitor center farther north.

People can park there and take public transportation to the historic district, he said. That should help alleviate some of the traffic problems.

King said his group supports the rest of the plan, and it must be implemented.

It’s important to make sure it’s not just a document that sits on a shelf, he said. “This is a two-step process.”

Reach Diane Knich at 843-937-5491 or on Twitter at @dianeknich.