Riley speech riles Cruise-ship mention in Savannah sparks criticism

The Carnival Fantasy was docked Thursday in Charleston.

It was supposed to be a simple trip to Savannah, where Charleston Mayor Joe Riley would give a lunchtime speech to a downtown business group about the ins and outs of running the Holy City.

Instead, it lit a fire under the leader of Savannah’s leading historic preservation group over cruise ships.

“Joe, please peddle your opinions elsewhere,” Daniel Carey, president and CEO of Historic Savannah Foundation, would write afterward in a letter to the editor.

The skirmish stems from the mayor’s May 10 visit. Riley had been invited to the Downtown Business Association’s monthly luncheon in Savannah.

It was one of various speaking engagements he honors as his schedule allows. Salmon was on the menu.

Riley had been briefed ahead of time about four questions to prepare for.

They covered the challenges of when he first was elected, the attraction of King Street, tourism, and fostering better relationships in the public and private sectors.

The curve ball came when somebody in the audience asked about handling cruise ships.

His response would be the dominant part of a Savannah Morning News story.

Among Riley’s reported quotes: Charleston becoming a year-round home port for a cruise ship has “worked out very well” since Carnival stationed the Fantasy in 2010.

“For a port city to have a cruise ship port is a natural.”

He also said, “Hotels and cruise ships and tours spit people out onto the streets who have disposable time and money in their pockets and improves livability for residents.” Riley told The Post and Courier Thursday that he didn’t say “spit.”

Instead, he said he used the word “spin,” in reference to revolving doors, as visitors move about a town.

A week after his talk came Carey’s cruise ship letter, which was published in Sunday’s Post and Courier.

“Has it worked out well for the residents of downtown who have been forced to sue just to establish reasonable limits and ground rules for these behemoths?” Carey wrote.

“Is it natural for 2,500 people to be spit out onto the streets ‘with time and money in their pockets?’?”

He also said, “As Savannah considers courting the cruise ship industry, I hope we give it more scrutiny than did Charleston.”

Reached Thursday, Carey said he did not attend Riley’s speech.

He did say the issue of cruises coming to Savannah “is ripening,” and the fear remains of visitation running amok if tourism management isn’t done right and thousands of people flood the streets.

“We’re looking for high quality heritage travelers,” said Carey, who said he has seen firsthand what happens when the boats arrive in Charleston.

Riley said his comments from that day have been misconstrued. He didn’t go to Savannah to tout cruise ships, and the point he was trying to make was preparation and management.

“I didn’t say that cruise ships spit out 2,500 people; that’s not in my vocabulary,” he said.

As far as the comments in Carey’s letter, “this is a free country and people can write what they want,” Riley said.

Savannah Alderman Tony Thomas said cruise-ship visits are coming, with one of the big questions remaining is where the ships will tie up.

Reach Schuyler Kropf at 937-5551, @skropf47 on ?Twitter.

Political Editor

Schuyler Kropf is The Post and Courier political editor. He has covered every major political race in South Carolina dating to 1988, including for U.S. Senate, governorship, the Statehouse and Republican and Democratic presidential primaries.