Chamber touts cruise industry

The Carnival Fantasy cruises into port in the Charleston Harbor, a scene that will be repeated often in the coming year.

Charleston's increasingly bustling cruise industry continues to draw critics, but on Wednesday it got the official nod from one of the biggest voices in the business community.

The Charleston Metro Chamber of Commerce launched an outreach effort to encourage support for bringing leisure boats to dock downtown and for redevelopment of the passenger facility at Union Pier.

Citing a recent study by College of Charleston researchers that found cruises generate a $37 million ripple effect annually on the local economy, the chamber plans to share its message with its 2,100 business members, as well as community leaders.

Mary Graham, the chamber's senior vice president of public policy, said the push, primarily through e-mail, came out of a discussion with State Ports Authority Chief Executive Officer Jim Newsome.

They shared a concern that only the negative aspects of the cruise industry are being aired publicly.

"One of the things we have heard is that City Council and the mayor are getting lots of messages from people against redevelopment, and we want to reinforce that we're doing the right thing to support it," Graham said.

At the top of that list of critics is the Charleston-based Coastal Conservation League and Dana Beach, the environmental group's executive director. His organization wants to see a cap on the number of cruise calls per year and for the city or other authority to impose pollution safeguards.

Beach said the cruise endorsement could harm some members of the chamber. He pointed to the argument that people might avoid the trips into cruise hubs on days when ships call.

He also questioned the depth of the economic impact study and suggested that businesses instead advocate tighter environmental standards for cruise lines now, while the industry still is developing.

"It's not a well-thought-out position, and it's unfortunate because the chamber has an unusually important position in the community to help resolve issues that turn on sophisticated economic analysis," Beach said. "They're forgetting that role with this blanket support."

Graham said the chamber stands behind the study's findings and the current standards for cruise lines.

"We don't need to put any additional regulations in place locally if we're going to be a competitor globally," Graham said. "The Coast Guard hasn't reported any instances (of problems). We trust them to be on top of it."

The chamber's support for cruise development comes as the SPA moves forward with a redevelopment of its passenger terminal, a plan that calls for demolishing most of the aging buildings on the property and opening up some 50 acres of valuable waterfront land for public use.

The proposal also would relocate BMW's local port operations and shift cruise ship passengers from the dated terminal near the end of Market Street to an existing cargo building at the north end of Union Pier.

SPA spokesman Byron Miller said the maritime agency plans to hold another community meeting in the next few weeks with updates on the next steps in the project, including design and cargo relocation.

Reach Allyson Bird at abird@postandcourier.com or 937-5594.