CHARLESTON, S.C. — The ongoing debate over cruise liners docking in Charleston has reached well beyond the city's historic waterfront.
The National Trust for Historic Preservation expects to announce on June 15 whether to include Charleston on its list of the nation's 11 most endangered historic places. Trust President Stephanie Meeks wrote Mayor Joseph P. Riley Jr. recently that the size and number of liners "threaten the very character of this historic place."
But the mayor fired back, saying it would be outrageous to add Charleston. The city is honored for its historic preservation efforts and crafted the nation's first tourism management plan.
"It would harm our city, its residents and it would not be based on truth," Riley wrote.
As the cruise industry grows and plans for a new $25 million state cruise terminal move forward, some opponents view the ships as bringing an endless stream of tourists, traffic and pollution.
Industry supporters see jobs in a tough economy, diversification for the waterfront and reaffirmation of what Charleston has always been — a seaport town thriving on a deep, sheltered Atlantic harbor for 340 years.
Debate over such issues is as much a part of Charleston as quiet gardens, passing carriages and pastel buildings.
A working waterfront
Plans in the 1980s for Charleston Place, the hotel development that led to a renaissance of the city shopping district, were hotly debated by preservationists as were new courthouses at the city's famed "Four Corners of Law." Opponents of the South Carolina Aquarium that opened a decade ago often said the last thing the city needed was a fish tank.
"It's very good this is a community where people believe they have right to express their views," said Riley, who said he doesn't get discouraged by constant debate. "Worthwhile developments and projects that have occurred here were not without controversy and the city is better because we were seeking the truth and came up with the very best solution."
The current debate centers on cruise ships.
"Can you name a place whose character and appeal and market differentiation in terms of tourism has been improved by cruise ship travel? I don't find any," Jonathan Tourtellot, founding director of the Center for Sustainable Destinations told an overflow crowd of 500 at a forum last week.
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Jim Newsome, president and CEO of the South Carolina State Ports Authority, told about 100 people at a rally beforehand the terminal is needed to support the industry and provide good waterfront jobs.
"Cruise is a small part of our total business — about 7 percent, but it's an important diversification," he said. "We have been in the cruise business for 40 years and we plan on being in the cruise business for a long time to come."
Some protesters at the rally said they didn't oppose the industry but that it needs to be better regulated.
The authority first proposed renovating its 1970s-era existing cinderblock terminal. But now it plans to create the new terminal in an old warehouse farther up the waterfront, opening large areas to public waterfront access and redevelopment. Cargo operations, including BMW's shipping operation, have been moved farther up river.
A year-round industry
There have been seasonal cruises from Charleston in years past, but things changed a year ago when Carnival permanently based its 2,056-passenger liner Fantasy in Charleston, creating a year-round industry.
Tourism is an $18.4 billion industry in South Carolina and a study for the authority found cruises are about $37 million yearly.
Riley told the forum there will be only be an average of two cruise calls a week in what is a niche market. He said the approximately 200,000 passengers a year is only about 4 percent of the city's 4.5 million visitors.
On some weekends, he said, there are as many as 36,000 people downtown and Charleston is not like Key West and overwhelmed by cruise ships.
"There is no economic basis to expect Charleston to become a cruise ship mecca. We are not in the Bahamas and we are not in the Caribbean," he said.
There were concerns, however, about the stability of the industry.
John Norquist, an urban planner and former mayor of Milwaukee, noted that Carnival has pulled out of Mobile, Ala., where there was a $20 million cruise terminal. The company announced in March that it was leaving because, while ships were full, it could not make enough money because of fuel costs.
The South Carolina Coastal Conservation League, which says the Charleston terminal could be located elsewhere, had urban planner Andrew Zitofsky look at the concept plan.
Without the terminal and its nine acres of parking, the land has a real estate value of $532 million and would generate $7 million annually in tax revenues, the review found.
"When you look at this, it's an historic choice. It's a big moment for Charleston," he said. "There is another use for this land that should be looked at."
But Riley said the city needs a working waterfront.
"We don't need to sell off every square inch of the waterfront," he said. "Cities are about more than money. They are about people and they are about jobs and they are about public access to the waterfront. That's why this project is right."
Alex Sanders, a raconteur and former College of Charleston president, said he doesn't have a personal interest in the debate but said what makes Charleston great is its variety of people.
"There's the idea that those of us lucky enough to live here somehow own Charleston and have the right to close it to others," he said. "I don't think we have that right."
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