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Editorial: SC Ports Authority, city of Charleston need to find common ground on cruise ships

Carnival Sunshine.jpg (copy) (copy) (copy)

The State Ports Authority and Charleston need to work out their differences about the Sunshine and other cruise ships that visit Charleston. File/Lauren Petracca/Staff

It’s been more than a decade since Charleston and the State Ports Authority began their epic feud over the proper presence of cruise ships next to the city’s historic core. There’s been precious little progress made, and we hope that changes soon.

There’s simply too much at stake beyond the cruise business.

As the S.C. Supreme and the U.S. District courts prepare to rule on aspects of the dispute, both sides should commit to restarting a dialogue about how they can find common ground and reset the important relationship between the state agency and the city. We recognize leadership will be required, and any breakthrough will take each side out of its comfort zone.

Cooperation between the city and state led to the creation of the State Ports Authority in the early 20th century, and its success has been crucial to South Carolina’s modern economy. But the state’s economy also thrives on tourism, and the dramatic success of historic Charleston is one of the leading drivers of that. This success was brought about partly by aggressively regulating many aspects of tourism under the correct belief that Charleston is an attractive place to visit foremost because it is an attractive place to live.

We don’t expect a resolution of the long-standing cruise debate would produce a clear winner or loser in this long-running dispute, partly because its complex nature includes the following issues:

• Whether there should be a legally binding penalty if the SPA exceeds its voluntary cap of no more than one cruise ship docking at a time, no more than 104 visits a year. The authority has abided by the cap for years and says it has turned down business to do so, but some in the city rightly wonder why, if the authority’s intent is to comply with the limit, it finds such a provision a problem.

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• Whether cruise ship passengers should be taxed more to contribute to the city, where struggles with flooding and sea-level rise have increased dramatically since the cruise ship controversy began. Ports Authority CEO Jim Newsome has argued cruise ships are just another form of maritime commerce, but Mayor John Tecklenburg said, “I respectfully believe that having cruise ships here is more than a maritime business.”

• Whether the authority should take further steps to reduce cruise ship emissions while in port. Mr. Newsome said low-sulfur fuels have improved the situation, and any decision on shore power is tied up with the following issue.

• Whether a new cruise ship terminal should be located on Union Pier, near the current, outdated facility. The debate over this facility and what sort of mitigation the state should provide the city to help offset impacts on the Historic District are the basis of the pending lawsuits.

As with most big disputes, there’s fault on both sides. Mr. Tecklenburg has talked about the desirability of a new tax on cruise passengers to help pay for the city’s infrastructure needs, but he has not yet sat down personally with ports officials to make his case. Mr. Newsome and his board have excelled in positioning the Port of Charleston for long-term growth but have seemed insensitive at times to legitimate local concerns. This problem isn’t unique to Charleston. North Charleston Mayor Keith Summey has his own frustration with the authority stemming from issues related to the new Leatherman terminal there.

The time is right for fresh talks, especially as the Ports Authority renegotiates a long-term deal with Carnival Cruise Line, whose ship Sunshine is based here, and as it plans for the future sale of its vast Union Pier site downtown.

There is some validity to the notion that no one wins except the lawyers whenever disputes are settled in court. When the two opposing sides are both arms of government — and accountable to many of the same people — inaction and litigation only increase cynicism about whether our government is really working for us.

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