“Report on cruise industry should open the city’s eyes”- an editorial in today’s P&C

Report on cruise industry should open the city’s eyes, Post and Courier, February 9, 2012, editorial. 

A new report on the cruise industry’s impact on historic Charleston confirms concerns that preservationists, environmentalists and many downtown residents have been expressing. City Hall should pay heed.

The independent assessment, commissioned by the non-profit Historic Charleston Foundation and prepared by financial and economic consulting firm Miley & Associates of Columbia, paints a much less appealing picture than the one put forth by the S.C. State Ports Authority.

It finds that the SPA’s claims about the extent to which cruises boost the downtown economy are too rosy. It suggests that the city, which has declined to regulate the number and size of cruise ships in Charleston, should indeed ensure that the cruise industry is managed and controlled, as are virtually all other attractions and activities governed by the city.

And it says the city, which provides many of the services required by cruise ships, should be receiving a portion of the parking and per-passenger fees (about $10 million a year) that now go to the SPA alone.

The study is clear in noting that the port is well run and respected, and has served the area and the state exceptionally well: “This report should not be interpreted as a negative report on the SPA or the cruise industry.”

But the report does elaborate on troubling cruise issues.

For the last few years, the SPA has responded to complaints about cruise ships flooding the Market area with people, polluting the air and towering over the historic city’s fabled skyline, by providing information about the industry’s benefits to hotels, restaurants and merchants.

Miley & Associates found that the hotels most benefiting from cruises are not in the historic city and that Carnival Cruise Lines purchases most supplies directly from manufacturers, not from local merchants. The study found that cruise ship passengers visiting Charleston spend only one-tenth of what other tourists spend.

To date, the mayor and City Council have followed the SPA’s lead on the cruise ship issue.

It is time for them to recognize that critics of the industry have legitimate concerns, which they, as elected officials, need to address.

They should start with the proposal to put binding restrictions on the number and size of cruise ships. The SPA has said it will allow no more than 104 a year.

HCF’s consultants recommend that the city should have a firm contract with the SPA, establishing who will own and control the portion of Union Pier that will be vacated when the passenger terminal is moved farther north, and who will pay for its development.

Other good ideas include creating a citizens commission to oversee and advise council on cruise issues and commissioning an independent study to determine the resources that the cruise ship industry cost the city.

The consultants concede the limitations in the scope of the study and recommend that an impartial economic impact analysis be conducted. It should be sponsored by those with a stake in the cruise industry’s future — from neighbors to longshoremen to environmentalists.

Mayor Joe Riley has said that those who want city controls on the cruise industry are a small group of people who don’t understand Charleston and think it should feel more like a gated community than a real city. He bridled at the National Trust for Historic Preservation including Charleston, because of the cruise industry, on its watch list for endangered cities.

This study acknowledges that the cruise industry indeed poses a risk to the historic charm of Charleston and could taint its excellent reputation as a world-class tourist destination.

Supporters of the cruise industry shouldn’t dismiss this report the way they have dismissed residents and merchants who have registered concerns about the size and number of ships in Charleston and their environmental impact.

And the city should pay close attention to its findings and recommendations, and not solely those made by the SPA.

From either perspective, the stakes are high regarding the cruise industry.

The city needs to balance cruise ships’ benefits and the industry’s impact on the ambiance and livability of the historic district. That balance is important to residents, tourism and the local economy.

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