Pro, con of cruise debate to be aired

The Carnival Fantasy docked at the South Carolina State Ports Authority Passenger Terminal Monday morning.

Brad Nettles

The contentious debate surrounding cruise ships and their now-frequent port calls in Charleston will get a thorough airing tonight and tomorrow. Supporters and opponents will hold rival forums and a rally about the future of the Union Pier on the Cooper River.

Despite countless public and private meetings, and dozens of newspaper reports, commentary articles and rival websites, those on each side of the debate about cruise ships and the planned construction of a new cruise terminal think their points of view have not been heard.

"I know people are pretty upset," said Katie Zimmerman of the Coastal Conservation League. "They feel like the port people aren't listening."

The results of a study on Union Pier commissioned by the nonprofit group are expected to be discussed tonight at a forum organized by the Historic Charleston Foundation. The study could recommend that Union Pier be sold for redevelopment rather than using some of the property for a cruise terminal.

The South Carolina Ports Authority owns Union Pier and is committed to replacing a cruise ship terminal there with a modern terminal on the site, south of Laurens Street. The SPA has expressed no interest in relocating the cruise ship operations, as some on the peninsula would like.

Opponents have raised concerns about pollution, traffic and the large numbers of tourists arriving or departing at once. Supporters say cruise ships are a natural, profitable extension of Charleston's history as a port city and a tourist destination.

"The maritime community, a lot of neighborhood groups, and hospitality interests have been frustrated in trying to get their voices heard," said Byron Miller, vice president for marketing, public relations and planning for the ports.

"The Historic Charleston event seems to be an anti-port, anti-cruise type slant," he said. "Of course, we're headed in the opposite direction."

The SPA is kicking off its own Union Pier Cruise Terminal design process on Tuesday, the day after Historic Charleston Foundation's forum.

While SPA Chief Executive Jim Newsome and Charleston Mayor Joe Riley are scheduled to appear on the panel at the Monday forum, the SPA also has organized a pro-port, pro-cruise rally immediately beforehand.

"We are hoping to fill the auditorium so there's no room for anyone who is opposed!!" wrote one cruise ship supporter who emailed the rally invitation to dozens of others.

Historic Charleston Foundation Executive Director Kitty Robinson said there is a lot of passion about the issue, but the forum isn't meant to be one-sided or anti-cruise ship. Panelists will include well-regarded experts on urban planning and design.

"We look at it as being a very balanced, transparent forum to foster and encourage community engagement," she said. "It's really about presenting facts and having a good discussion."

But that's not how port workers see it, according to Ken Riley, president of the International Longshoremen's Association, Local 1422.

"We see this (forum) as negatively affecting the city of Charleston as well as the port of Charleston," he said. "I'm very much concerned that if this type of negative publicity continues, it may somehow, some way, affect Carnival's decision to look at Charleston long-term."

Downtown residents, business owners, port and tourism-industry workers and public officials have been choosing sides on the issue since 2009.

That's when the Carnival Fantasy, which carries more than 2,000 passengers, began calling on Charleston regularly, and the number of cruise ship port calls roughly tripled from the 33 in 2009.