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Cruisin' to prosperity
Could Savannah be home to a cruise ship?

After a decade adrift, the plan to secure a cruise ship terminal in Savannah has floated back up the river, steered by Alderman Tony Thomas and a task force consisting of state and local business and political leaders.

“Ten years ago, there was a group that looked at it, and my question was why didn’t it happen?” Thomas says.

Members of the task force are hoping that whatever obstacles prevented the construction of a  cruise ship terminal then have since been removed. The economic rewards of landing such a project would be significant.

“When you look at creating jobs and economic development, this is it in the raw right here,” Thomas says.

According to a study of 29 cruise destinations done by the Florida–Caribbean Cruise Association, the total amount of spending per passenger averages out to more than $100 per day, and the average spending per crew member is about $89. With an influx of thousands of passengers and crew per year into the city, the result would be millions of dollars in new spending injected into the local economy.

One of the spurs that goaded Thomas and others into action was the economic impact of the cruise industry on Charleston, S.C.

“Every time a ship sails from Charleston, they’re saying that it drops a million dollars into the local economy,” Thomas explains. “That’s direct spending, and that’s a lot of money.”

The FCCA study cites several industries that are most often impacted, including retail, tours, museums, restaurants, bars and transportation — all things Savannah has readily available.

“I would say that Savannah is a very positive experience for a company that might want to home port a ship there,” says Peter Whelpton, a cruise industry consultant. “The problem that Savannah has is you have to have a terminal — that’s why they asked me to come and take a look.”

For several days, just prior to Thanksgiving, Whelpton travelled to Savannah to meet with the cruise ship task force and discuss the viability of the city as a cruise port.

“We covered all the bases, and what I provided them with is the information from the cruise industry side,” says Whelpton. “I explained to them what it would take to get a ship there.”

The biggest remaining question mark for the success of the project remains the location of – and funding for – a cruise ship terminal, which would be necessary to load and unload passengers and house customs checks and other necessary security measures.

“One of the harder parts would be to identify a location here on the river where they could safely moor,” explains Coast Guard Commander Lonnie Harrison, Captain of the Port of Savannah.

The Coast Guard’s role in the process would be to help work with existing port partners, such as shipping companies, to ensure that the location of the terminal didn’t impede ship traffic on the river. They would also be involved in establishing security guidelines.

“Once that location is identified, then there’s a series of federal requirements that come into play,” continues Harrison. “A lot of it surrounds post-9/11 security for cruise ships, and would have a considerable cost.”

Besides customs and security inside the terminal, there would also be security measures needed for the land and water sides of the ship, similar to measures necessary to restrict access to planes at the airport.

Discussions remain largely speculative at this point, but Harrison says that if the plan does not hinder existing port partners, then he would gladly support it moving forward.

“If there’s a way where it’s going to be too dangerous or not viable, then I would back our port stakeholders on that,” he explains. “If it’s absolutely viable, I’m 100 percent in favor of trying to support it.”

At current levels, the addition of cruise ship traffic would not interrupt existing shipping traffic, and there are several spots along the river where pilots are able to coordinate large ships passing one another. However, the location of the terminal would be a crucial component to counting on support from existing port stakeholders.

“There really would be no problem adding cruise ships to the traffic currently on the river,” says Robert Morris, the Port Authority’s Director of External Affairs. “The Georgia Ports Authority would like to provide input when the location is settled upon. The Corps of Engineers will also definitely have to be involved.”

As of now, there are several sites that are under consideration, but no specifics are available until further research is completed.

“There are areas along the riverfront that have potential, but no one knows whether they qualify, because they have to meet certain standards,” Thomas says.

While talking with Whelpton, he noted that three potential locations had been discussed as possibilities, and in his opinion, one of the three seemed particularly viable, however, a feasibility study would be needed to determine whether that was actually the case.

“I think they’re all agreed that the next step will be a feasibility study,” says Whelpton. “From the study they will make the final decision to design, construct and go after funding to build the terminal.”

The cost of terminal construction is the project’s next major obstacle after potential sites are vetted and one is approved.

As an example, Whelpton explained that the newly opened Fort Everglades terminal near Fort Lauderdale, which is home to Royal Caribbean’s Oasis of the Seas, cost about $75 million, and that was to renovate a space, not build from the ground up. The Oasis is also the largest cruise ship in the world, and Savannah most likely wouldn’t require a terminal of the same magnitude.

Recognizing that the terminal probably comes with a price tag somewhere in the tens of millions, Thomas is hoping funding could be secured through a public–private partnership, however, he also would not rule out using other options like bonds or a tax allocation district.

While determining how to pay for the terminal is a bridge that will be crossed further down the road, the funding for the feasibility study is nearly secure, and could move forward as early as spring of 2010.

Despite a challenging year for the city’s budget, including steep declines in tax revenue and cuts in funding to several departments, City Council has made this project a priority, and Thomas says that they decided last week to allot $50,000 in the 2010 budget toward the feasibility study, which they hope will be matched by other partners in the venture.

According to Thomas, the CVB has agreed to contribute additional funds, and state level officials have indicated they will chip in as well, although no particular amount has been formally approved.

“Everyone is worried about their budgets and worried about where they’re going to find money to pay for this or that,” says Thomas. “This is an opportunity in the middle of all that to add an additional revenue stream, additional tourists and additional jobs right here in Savannah.”