Cruise ship forum told to sweat details: Audience urged to help shape new terminal to city's benefit

A couple sits on a swing Monday at Waterfront Park in Charleston as a Carnival Fantasy passenger cruise ship sits at the South Carolina State Ports Authority passenger terminal.

Brad Nettles

It's unclear how many minds changed during Monday evening's 2 1/2-hour forum over the impact the cruise ship industry is having on historic Charleston.

But a message that emerged near the end cautioned the approximately 400 in the audience not to view the issue solely through the lens of who wins or loses the longstanding debate over the industry's potential growth here.

Instead, audience members were urged to scrutinize details for handling the cruise industry -- specifically for building a new passenger terminal planned to serve it -- so they're as beneficial as possible to the city.

The forum, sponsored by the Historic Charleston Foundation, brought together Mayor Joe Riley, State Ports Authority President Jim Newsome and several outside experts specializing in urban design, tourism, architecture and economics.

John Norquist, the former Milwaukee mayor who now heads the Congress for the New Urbanism, urged the audience to work harder and help perfect the Ports Authority's plans to redevelop Union Pier.

"I think one of the great things about Charleston is that people argue over how to make it better," he said. He noted the plans for surface parking lots near the cruise terminal could be changed, even eliminated. "It's the kind of detail that could make the plan work better from the standpoint of neighborhoods nearby."

The authority plans to redevelop Union Pier and build a new passenger terminal on the site's northern end, near Laurens Street. But an increasingly vocal group of residents and preservationists want it moved even farther north, closer to the Arthur Ravenel Jr. Bridge. They also want legally enforceable caps on the size and number of cruise ships calling here.

Many speakers acknowledged the potential downside of the cruise industry, citing how the ships have overrun Key West, Fla., and the Bahamas and how Mobile, Ala., invested big in a new passenger terminal only to see its main cruise line set sail from that city.

Jonathan Tourtellot, a founding director of the Center for Sustainable Destinations, said he also is a tourist in Charleston, adding, "I don't know many of us (tourists) who come to a city and say, 'Oh good! There's a cruise ship in!' "

Still, the significance of the industry was underscored 90 minutes before the forum began, as more than 100 port supporters rallied to back the plan to build a new passenger terminal.

At least six held up signs reading, "Jobs Not Snobs!"

Adrian Barry, a rising College of Charleston senior, was part of a small counter protest and held up his own sign that read, "Cruise Standards for Sustainable Tourism." Barry said he and other protesters weren't against cruise ships; they just want limits on them locked into law.

The Ports Authority has agreed to voluntary limits of no more than one cruise ship at a time and no more than 104 per year. Newsome told both the rally and forum that he knows of no other major port that has accepted legal limits on its business, "and we're not going to be the first one."

Harry Miley, founder of the Columbia economic consulting firm Miley & Associates Inc., said the passenger terminal part of Union Pier seems more concrete than plans to redevelop other parts of the site -- redevelopment that could make the project work better for existing neighbors.

"How will it be paid for? Who will own it?" Miley asked. "That still seems to be a long, long way off."

Mayor Riley got the first applause when he passionately argued that comparisons between Charleston and Key West were "ridiculous," saying Charleston can easily absorb the 3-4 percent of its tourist base that arrives or departs by ship.

He later got the biggest laugh when he noted the city always has had a diverse, working waterfront and that today's Fleet Landing restaurant is so named because that building once was where sailors arrived in the city after a long time at sea.

"Let me tell you what: They were not heading to the antique stores," he said.

Sink or sail?

The future of cruise ships is one of the most hotly contested issues on the peninsula of Charleston.

The State Ports Authority wants to build a new passenger terminal. In September, City Council resolved to support the ships, noting that the state didn't plan to allow more than one cruise ship at a time -- roughly two a week -- to dock here. But residents and preservationists fear more cruise ships could call on Charleston in the future.

The National Trust for Historic Preservation is considering whether the cruise ship issue merits adding the city to its "11 Most Endangered" list. Here are three key points in the debate:

TRAFFIC

About two-thirds of the cruise ships have passengers embarking and disembarking in the city, causing heavy traffic on the streets leading from Interstate 26 and U.S. Highway 17 to the ships.

CROWDS

The new cruise ship terminal is being designed to accommodate one ship at a time and is expected to handle ships that carry between 1,900 and 3,500 passengers.

LOCATION

Also in dispute is whether the State Ports Authority should continue its plan of building a new passenger terminal on Union Pier or whether it should be moved to another site farther away from the historic district.

Traffic

Pro: While the rising number of cruise ships did tie up traffic for a time around East Bay Street and the Harris Teeter supermarket, city officials have worked to improve the traffic flow and reduce congestion.

Con: Even with better traffic management, opponents question whether cruise ships harm the historic district by increasing the number of vehicles on already congested streets — and by giving over a large swath of Union Pier for use as a parking lot.

Crowd

Pro: Supporters say visitors drawn by cruise ships provide an important economic jolt for the Charleston economy, particularly downtown. With no more than one ship at a time in port, supporters say these visitors are easily absorbed into the city.

Con: Detractors say cruise ship passengers don't support many downtown restaurants, hotels and businesses as much as other tourists do, making them less desirable. They say it's not just the crowds but also the noise from PA systems and horns, air pollution and other negative effects.

Location

Pro: Union Pier has long been part of the city's working waterfront and would have passengers disembark within walking distance of many city attractions. The new terminal would help spur redevelopment of this largely blighted area.

Con: Opponents want the site moved farther north, to the Columbus Street Terminal site, to ease the impact of cruise ship traffic and parking — and to allow, in their view, appropriate redevelopment of Union Pier.

What's Next

The Coastal Conservation League and Dover Kohl and Partners will discuss the economic realities of moving the cruise terminal from the Union Pier property, 10 a.m.

today at Ansonborough Fields.

The South Carolina Ports Authority kicks off its Union Pier Cruise Terminal design process, noon today at the current passenger terminal, 196 Concord St.

The National Trust for Historic Preservation is expected to decide soon if it will add Charleston to its '11 Most Endangered List' because of cruise concerns.