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Cruise terminal: Will it float?
Feasibility study kicks off new push

This week, while everyone in the world is talking about Paula Deen, something else is happening which will also have great potential impact on our tourist industry: The results of a $300,000 "feasibility" study on a cruise ship terminal go public.

(Want to read about Paula? See Chrystal Arboleda Lopez's piece).

I use air quotes above because the company contracted for the study is in the business of building such facilities. I bet they'll rank our feasibility pretty high, don't you?

We've heard the siren song of a cruise ship terminal for quite awhile, going back at least one mayor and two city managers.

Visit Savannah President Joe Marinelli says in his experience there's no other tourism-related issue "that people are as passionate about from one end of town to the other. I hear some very emotionally charged opinions on both sides."

I'd expect to hear more of those opinions after the study comes out; the task force on cruise ships will be reconvened in an effort to push the terminal to fruition.

I thought the Carnival Cruise "ship of death" debacle last February would have sunk the idea. But not even the specter of negative PR associated with Carnival's Triumph — a feces-and-urine-splattered, disease-ridden, fire-damaged wandering pariah — is enough to keep local cruise ship backers from continuing to push hard.

Apparently, the irony involved in the fact that the Triumph ended up disembarking its 4,000 befouled, sick passengers at a defunct and unused cruise terminal in Mobile, Alabama, escaped most everyone. A terminal made defunct and unused by... wait for it... Carnival Cruise Line's own abrupt decision to leave Mobile after that city's $20 million investment to attract and keep the company.

Cruise terminals all over the country — Houston, San Diego, Norfolk — have been jilted in a similar manner, and left with similar bills to pay. Savannah taxpayers are being asked to make a similar up-front investment, with a similar chance of success.

"When these big cruise lines make a decision to pull out of a market, it's just a phone call," local resident and cruise terminal opponent Kent Harrington tells me. "And they're gone just like that."

Harrington says when cruise lines leave, taxpayers at ports of call are often still on the hook for years of paying down bond issues to build and/or improve the terminal.

Mobile, for example, continues to pay $2 million a year after the ships are gone. (Adding insult to injury, Carnival is suing the shipyard that took in the stricken Triumph after damage from an April storm.)

Anecdotal evidence about passionate opinions aside, I've yet to meet anyone outside city government who really thinks a cruise terminal is an all-out fantastic idea, Alderman Tony Thomas being by far the project's most vocal backer.

I suspect some T-shirt shop owners on River Street might also think it's fantastic. Waterfront restaurants might welcome the predictable waves of tourists. And I suppose some tour companies look forward to warm bodies with an hour to spend on a quick-hit tour with a ghost story thrown in.

But what's the long-term payoff for the rest of us from such a weighty investment — perhaps as high as $100 million?

As much as Savannah views itself as Charleston with to-go cups — and I say that lovingly — we might learn from the mistakes of our older sister. The presence of Carnival Cruise Lines at a $30 million terminal downtown has singlehandedly landed Charleston on the National Trust's "Most Endangered Historic Places."

The problem with cruise ships isn't only the potential long-term liability for taxpayers or the rapid discharge of often low-spending tourists who tend to crowd out visitors with more to offer the local economy. The problem is also pollution.

Cruise ships don't just burn fuel on the way in and out of port. They run diesel engines pretty much constantly for one reason or another.

"If shore power isn't provided to them," says Harrington, "they run their engines 24 hours a day to generate electricity while they're docked. That's 24 hours a day of exhaust clouds pouring downtown," a chief complaint about Carnival in Charleston.

Politicians will tout the job growth of a cruise ship terminal, the words "new jobs" having the same powerful use for them as "fighting terrorism" or "for the children."

But, except for a few part-time seasonal jobs tied to the cruise ship schedule, and extra hours worked by already-employed longshoremen, there won't be much direct growth for the simple reason that most all the jobs are aboard the ship and stay there.

So what's in it for us onshore?

Marinelli doesn't have a yes/no position on cruise ships in Savannah, pointing out that the issue is more nuanced.

"I think people tend to lump in all cruise ships with that big Carnival model. But the industry has changed dramatically over the past ten years or so. There are smaller and mid-sized lines handling a more high-end passenger," Marinelli says, citing the example of a recent visit to Savannah by a $10,000 per passenger cruise sponsored by Harvard University and the Smithsonian.

"They were here for a day and a half, eating and looking around and spending money in town, and I bet not one of them bought a T-shirt or a trinket," he laughs.

Marinelli concludes, "I like the fact that as a city we're constantly looking at the future, at different ideas and possibilities, and at what we need to do to stay relevant as a tourist destination," adding that cruise ships are potentially a part of that relevancy mix — if done properly.

So if you trust your elected and appointed officials to do it "properly," then don't worry, be happy. Have another daiquiri.

But if you do worry about the effects of a cruise ship terminal on the long-term health of the local economy and environment, then it pays not to fall asleep on your watch.

The cruise lines definitely won't.