Cruise foes zero in on Charleston International conference to be held here

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Charleston is not alone in grappling with the potential harm from a growing cruise ship industry, and the city will host an international conference of preservationists this fall to delve into the issue.

The conference was announced Thursday during a Preservation Society of Charleston meeting, where National Trust for Historic Preservation Director Stephanie Meeks spoke.

“Charleston is an internationally important city, and there are a lot of cities that have even more experience in cruise tourism than Charleston has,” she said.

It was Meeks’ first public appearance here since the National Trust placed the city on a new “watch status” because of concerns that its expanding cruise ship tourism could jeopardize the city’s historic character.

The trust has teamed up with local preservation groups and others to address concerns over the ships, such as their related traffic, congestion, pollution — even their visual impact on the skyline.

She offered relatively few comments on the controversy, but Preservation Society Executive Director Evan Thompson announced that the international conference would be held Nov. 14-16 at Charleston’s Francis Marion Hotel.

“In historic port cities, we’re all up against the international cruise tourism industry,” Thompson said. “If we can find a way to work together ... we’ll have a much greater chance of success.”

He noted that the issue is relevant in Key West, Fla.; Mobile, Ala.; and in much-older cities such as Venice, Italy, and Dubrovnik, Croatia.

The World Monuments Fund, which also has expressed concern over cruise ships’ impact in Charleston, is a partner for the fall conference.

Charleston Mayor Joe Riley, who wasn’t at the meeting, has drawn criticism from preservationists for not doing enough to regulate cruise ships. Earlier Thursday, Riley said the city and the State Ports Authority are moving ahead with plans for a new cruise terminal that will spur the redevelopment of Union Pier.

He said the industry’s legal and political opponents have not done any damage.

“All of us are patient. We have all the patience that issue needs because what we’re doing is the right thing,” he said. “The overwhelming majority of the community is behind this.”

Riley also noted that the city’s cruise ship industry isn’t seeing unabated growth; 84 ships are set to call here this year, down from 87 last year.

Still, the society placed the Ansonborough neighborhood on its new “Seven to Save” list of historic sites worthy of attention.

Thompson said the listing is partly because Ansonborough is so close to the cruise terminal and partly because it is home to the Gaillard Auditorium, which is set for a $140 million makeover that the society wants scaled back.

While other port cities are affected by cruise ships, there’s not widespread concern voiced over them, said John Hildreth, head of the National Trust’s Eastern field office. “But there’s that potential as the cruise industry is growing and changing.”

Meeks said many historic cities have looked to Charleston to set a standard in preservation.

“If Charleston can’t figure it out,” Thompson said, “it doesn’t bode well for other less organized, but equally valuable places.”

Reach Robert Behre at 937-5771.