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Cruising along
City Council gets an update on whether Savannah will ever have cruise ships
In the forecast laid out by cruise industry consultants, Savannah could have 104 ships departing for international destinations by 2015.

The central topic of conversation at City Council’s pre–meeting workshop last week was about progress toward making Savannah a home port for cruise ships.

After months of study and speculation, city officials are tasked with determining how (and whether) to proceed. The outlook appears rosy, but there are still many significant questions that need to be answered, and any actual development is still several years away.

“Everything up to this point is an assumption,” said Tony Thomas, the 6th District Alderman who has been at the front of the charge for cruise ships. “We have to make sure there are verifiable facts behind this.”

In the forecast laid out by cruise industry consultants, Savannah could have 104 ships departing for international destinations by 2015. If that worked out, the Hostess City could open her doors to 100,000 passengers, generating an economic impact of $25.6 million and creating 421 jobs (not all of which would be local).

By 2020, the ships, passengers and ancillary businesses could be generating an $89.1 million impact with 1,465 jobs created.

While the buffet of numbers has many locals salivating after several lean years, the pros might not outnumber the cons, depending on the outcome of more stringent analysis.

“We’re many Powerpoints ahead of ourselves,” said Alderman–at–Large and mayoral candidate Jeff Felser.
Among remaining issues are funding for the project (conservatively in the tens of millions for terminal construction alone), a site for the terminal, environmental impacts and so forth.

“Consideration of environmental conditions, that is a long process,” said City Manager Rochelle Small–Toney, adding that geo–technical surveys in particular would be a challenge (a nod to the City’s trouble with both the Riverwalk extension and a lawsuit from contractors who oversaw the Ellis Square parking garage construction – both of which supposedly stemmed from faulty geo-technical data).

Other hurdles include logistical complications with port traffic, additional investments in infrastructure and the impacts of the proposed harbor deepening, which could all complicate matters down the line.

“This is the start of the beginning,” said Mayor Otis Johnson, adding that he was looking forward to one day travelling on a cruise from Savannah, but was also glad that his term would be over before battles over the site and funding for the project got under way. “There’s a long way to go.”

The presentation, and the decision to have staff pursue a more specific proposal to advance efforts to attract a cruise line, comes at a time when opposition to the cruise industry by groups in Charleston has come to a boil.

Recently, the National Trust for Historic Preservation has warned that the growth of the cruise ship business is threatening Chucktown’s historic character, pitting history buffs against the business community.

Following the meeting, a majority of council was in agreement that staff should continue working toward a proposal that would outline as specifically as possible what would be required of the City, financially and otherwise.

Among the action steps needed are less speculative economic analysis, preliminary plans on marketing efforts to attract a cruise line, negotiations with owners of potential terminal site locations, outlines of funding scenarios (whether the project would be public, private or a partnership), and an expanded organizational structure. Currently, the study has been carried out by a community Task Force created by Alderman Thomas, but council members agreed that more community partners would need to be brought into the fold.

To date, the City has invested $50,000, alongside additional funds from the state, the Riverfront Association and tourism officials, among others, to begin a feasibility study on whether the Savannah could join the ranks of Charleston, Jacksonville and others who are already reaping the economic benefits.