Sen. Robert Ford reverses on cruise terminal

Sen. Robert Ford (left) and SPA Chief Executive Jim Newsome

The latest flare-up in Charleston's cruise ship controversy revolves around state Sen. Robert Ford, who last week criticized the location of a planned downtown cruise ship terminal, then reversed his position this week.

Ford said in a Post and Courier commentary Aug. 25 that the State Ports Authority should build the new facility at the Columbus Street Terminal, in Ford's legislative district, and he wrote that SPA Chairman Bill Stern had "tried to mislead the public and Legislature" on the issue in an earlier opinion piece. Ford's writing echoed some of the positions outlined by opponents of a $25 million passenger terminal the SPA is planning for the north end of Union Pier.

Late this week, Ford changed his position, saying Friday that constituents "read me the riot act." But Ford also said he was offended by a letter he received from SPA chief executive Jim Newsome, in which Newsome described the senator's position as "disappointing and confusing" and appeared to cancel a meeting with Ford and State Rep. Wendell Gilliard to discuss diversity in the port's workforce.

"He was trying to tell me how to be a state senator," Ford said. "You're not going to meet with an elected official about a major concern because you disagree with his position?"

"He was completely out of order," Ford added. "I think Mr. Newsome needs to learn that he needs to respect all members of the General Assembly."

Newsome said Friday he meant no offense.

"I have a great respect for the General Assembly, for all the members and especially those on the Legislative Oversight Committee, of which he is one," Newsome said. "If he took offense, I certainly apologize."

Newsome said he was confused because Ford had sent him a letter congratulating the SPA on the cruise project and seeking the meeting about minority hiring immediately before the lawmaker's critical commentary was published.

That commentary had proposed that the cruise ship facility be built at the Columbus Street Terminal near the Ravenel Bridge, and that all remaining SPA property at the Union Pier and Columbus terminals be sold for private development. Newsome wrote his letter to Ford the next day.

"I wanted to express my confusion and concern, and see if we should still have a meeting," said Newsome, whose letter said he planned to remove the meeting about diversity jobs from his calendar.

Newsome said Friday that he plans to meet with Ford and Gilliard on Tuesday as had been planned. Ford said he has no plans to meet with Newsome.

Gilliard said he didn't support putting the cruise facility at Columbus Street, and he's glad Ford changed his mind about the Union Pier location.

He said "any elected official would" have taken offense at Newsome's letter.

"I think they need to sit down and smooth this over so we can move forward," Gilliard said.

State Sen. Robert Ford's letter to SPA chief Jim Newsome dated Aug. 22 began: "Congratulations, on the final approval of this South Carolina cruise industry project that solidifies the cruise industry is here to stay."

Ford's commentary published Aug. 25 began: "I have followed the debate on the cruise ships in Charleston. I have heard the concerns from residents about severe traffic congestion and have seen it myself. I have long voiced my opposition to jamming too much government expansion south of Calhoun Street when other areas of the city could benefit from such development and economic activity."

Ford's Sept. 1 letter began: "I have just left a meeting this afternoon with dozens of my constituents who reside in the Columbus Street area, right next to the location I was proposing for the new cruise terminal. To my surprise, this group of citizens was adamantly opposed to my idea for locating the terminal there."