The SPA needs a course correction

by Jay Williams

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The SPA needs a course correction

February 5, 2020

|Jay Williams, Jr.

The Advocate

First Scots’ Fellowship Hall was so packed for January’s Charlestowne Neighborhood Association meeting, that some CNA members were left standing to hear the presentation from the State Ports Authority (SPA).

Ms. Barbara L. Melvin, the SPA’s chief operating officer, began by touting the port’s decade of continuous annual growth, dredging the harbor from 45’ to 52’, the new Leatherman Terminal project, its 535 employees and $300 million in annual revenues. Then she got to its cruise business.

The attendees perked up.

The cruise industry represents just four percent of the SPA’s business, Ms. Melvin said and we’re staying within our “voluntary restrictions” of 104 ships a year, with a 3,500 passenger limit, hosting only one ship in port at a time. She also said that they have made “traffic more tolerable for people who live downtown,” adding that they pay for the off-duty police officers to assist.

But when Ms. Melvin veered close to addressing a passenger fee for the city, she demurred and said, “These passengers are cargo. We, as a port, are not in the tourism business.”

For many present, hoping for a discussion on quality of life issues, that assertion was nonsensical. “My jaw dropped,” said Carrie Agnew, executive director of Charleston Communities for Cruise Control, “It’s such an insensitive thing to say to people who live here.”

It wasn’t the first time.

The Advocate quoted Jim Newsome, the SPA’s president and CEO, last year as he offered that same argument. And again two weeks ago when Newsome told the Post and Courier, “We’re not in the tourist business; we’re in the maritime commerce business. The city doesn’t have a right to tax maritime commerce, so we think it’s an idea that doesn’t have legs.”

But here on land, that “maritime commerce” literally has legs. It is inundating our city and it’s as unwanted and as frequent as the flooding. The SPA’s “cargo” drives their cars through the city, ambles down our streets, uses our city’s infrastructure and facilities, leaves litter and debris and meanders through our shops seldom buying anything because this “cargo” knows they’re sailing to the Bahamas or the Caribbean to spend their money.

In many ports, the city owns the cruise terminal, but Charleston’s ports are owned by the SPA, a public-private consortium very loosely supervised by the state legislature. This autonomy has buttressed the SPA’s intransigence.

City Councilmember Mike Seekings offered his thoughts after the meeting, “We’re in the business of running a historic city that is growing, that has needs and that means we need better infrastructure to support the maritime business.

“The cruise business,” Seekings said, “is not just water based with no impact on the land. They’re using the city’s resources and we’re getting nothing. Those passengers transit on and across city property and they wouldn’t be here if it weren’t for the cruise ships.”

A Landing Fee

What’s Seeking’s solution? “We don’t want to tax cruise ships, but we should have a landing fee for people coming in and out of the city. People who are using our resources should help pay for our resources,” he said. “Right now there’s only one industry exempt from that.”

“To allow someone at the end of Market Street to do hundreds of millions in business by taking people away from the city of Charleston, without paying any benefits to us, is inequitable,” Seekings said. “When people make that transition from maritime commerce into the city of Charleston, that’s the transition point where we collect that landing fee.”

Mayor John Tecklenburg took a slightly different approach in his State of the City address last week, citing flooding, “That’s why we’ll be meeting with state officials in the coming months to discuss changes in state law that would allow all our visitors, including hotel guests and cruise ship passengers, to help fund flooding solutions … supporting a responsible, reasonable extension of Home Rule …”

Jack O’Toole, the city’s director of communications, added emphasis to the mayor’s comments, “There are eight million people who come here and 140,000 who live here and we all need to contribute to solving the flooding problem. We need to look at the big picture.” O’Toole said the city is in conversations with the state delegation to work with the legislature to change the law so the city can raise taxes on tourists. “Under state law right now, we can’t raise the money,” O’Toole noted.

There’s another solution we should advance immediately. We could negotiate directly with Carnival to get voluntary fees for Charleston. Carnival is in the consumer business, they likely don’t view their passengers as “cargo,” and they may be open to offering the city a pass-through cost of $20 per passenger. It would be good public relations for Carnival and both the mayor’s office and Seekings thought the idea was worth pursuing.

The three-by-three-by-three Opportunity

Too little is known about an important Army Corps of Engineers Charleston Peninsula Study, guided by “the three-by-three-by-three rule.” Launched in October, 2018, this feasibility study will evaluate all possible actions to provide long-term coastal storm and flood risk management all around the Charleston peninsula. Depending on the location, those options could include concrete walls, tide gates and breakwaters as well as soft barriers and enhanced marshes.

This study is so named because it will be completed in three years, for $3 million and will involve all three levels of Corps review. Although this federally-funded study won’t be finished until October 2021, a draft report will be released for public review this April.

This is a big opportunity, Seekings says, citing the plethora of issues that must be discussed between the ports authority and the city. “We need to engage in conversation. This study may recommend a 12’ linear, land-based wall that could seriously affect Ports Authority property. Also, the SPA wants to sell parts of Union Pier anyway, even if they get permission to build a new terminal there. That land is wildly valuable. But the city controls the zoning and that zoning will impact the value,” Seekings noted. “We should be partnering.”

The Advocate has consistently recommended that the SPA move cruise ships up river to the Veteran’s Terminal. It has better access to major highways, plenty of parking and is better positioned for homeland security in this age of threats and viruses. This is just one of the many topics the SPA should put on the table for serious discussion.

The three-by-three-by-three study is coming up and any solution will impact both the ports and the city. The Union Pier land is exceptionally valuable and must be sold for a higher and better use than a waterfront parking lot — ideally a small-scale urban development consistent with historic Charleston’s downtown. Charleston is environmentally fragile from the water and on land; by definition, a cruise terminal is a threatening neighbor. At minimum, there must be remote parking to eliminate traffic gridlock and shore power to further reduce pollution. And Charleston doesn’t have enough money to address the frequent flooding conditions jeopardizing cruise passenger access or the city itself.

The SPA needs to come about.