To the owners of Hall’s Chophouse, a cruise ship pulling into port signals the sound of cash registers ringing.
Big boats bursting with people translates to increased sales for the family-owned restaurant and a host of other businesses around Charleston, from Victoria’s Secret to Coburg Dairy, florists to supermarkets, officials said.
Other folks, however, see these hulking cruise liners as waterborne threats to this historic city’s quality of life. They view the ships as unwelcome behemoths that disgorge thousands of tourists, clogging city streets, straining infrastructure and raising the specter of pollution.
The cruise ship industry has been a part of Charleston for almost four decades, with nearly 1,000 ships visiting the Holy City in that time. The industry, however, has gained a greater toehold in the city since May when Charleston became a home port for the Carnival Fantasy. Rather than the occasional visit, pleasure ships are now bellying up to the docks at a rate of about two a week, with each ship dumping up to 3,500 people onto the city’s streets.
That tourism infusion is expected to pump some $37 million into the region’s economy this year amid a crippling recession, benefitting everyone from longshoremen on the docks to bellboys in area hotels.
“We definitely know when the ships are here, and we couldn’t be happier,” said Billy Hall, whose family owns Hall’s Chophouse on King Street.
But not everyone wins.
While ship crew members wandered through Harris Teeter supermarket on a recent afternoon buying fresh supplies and wiring money home, the neighboring East Bay True Value Hardware didn’t see a dime in extra business. Some regular customers stay away when the ships are in town, owner Kim Hines said. “Some Saturdays we wonder why we even open at all.”
For many residents, the only tangible by-products of the ships are road closures and traffic jams. They look to cruise-heavy cities such as Key West and worry that things will only get worse until the boats and their human cargo overrun Charleston and destroy its fragile historic charm.
“It feels like we are giving up so much of our quality of life for something where most people don’t see any benefit,” SuSu Ravenel of Tradd Street said.
Some groups advocate having the city regulate the industry and establish local controls, while others suggest that is unworkable and unnecessary. The debate has divided neighborhoods and community groups.
“The best word that describes it is ‘polarizing’ — extremely so,” said Charles Rhoden, president of the Charleston Peninsular Neighborhood Consortium.
Port and city officials insist cruise opponents’ fears are unwarranted.
State Ports Authority Chief Executive Officer Jim Newsome said the agency has every intention of keeping the cruise business at a scale that is appropriate to Charleston. That translates to no more than two 3,500-passenger ships per week, a limit supported by experience and current cruise bookings through 2012. Plans to build a one-berth passenger terminal on the northern end of Union Pier attest to the SPA strategy of having just one ship in port at a time, he said.
“This is not Key West or Fort Lauderdale,” he said, “and it will not become Key West or Fort Lauderdale.”
Mayor Joe Riley, a supporter of cruise ships, also considers two ships a week an appropriate number for the city. He said the ships result in 250 direct jobs at the port, “substantial spillover economic benefits” and a diverse port portfolio.
Newsome said problems with snarling traffic largely have been ironed out as the SPA and Charleston police have devised better routes for getting passengers to and from the ships. Each cruise generates, at most, 400 to 500 cars coming into or leaving the city, an amount easily accommodated on local roads, particularly when passenger departures and arrivals are staggered over a 10-hour period, he said. The traffic situation will further improve when the new terminal is constructed, allowing for a more orderly flow and ending the need for street closures, he said.
“With the new cruise terminal, I don’t think you will even know there is a ship in town unless you see it,” Newsome said.
Newsome said the SPA went out of its way to involve the community in the process, and that involvement spurred the plan for a new terminal. Several neighborhood leaders have expressed support for the plan and have said encouraging words about the cruise industry’s standards and practices.
“It’s been a very controversial issue, and quite frankly, I don’t see why that is. It helps the economy and creates jobs,” said Elizabeth Farley Clark, president of the Charlestowne Neighborhood Association. “The SPA has been a delight to work with. They have been very receptive to the questions asked of them and have been very open about their plans.”
Not everyone, however, shares that enthusiasm or trust.
At last week’s meeting of the Historic Ansonborough Neighborhood Association, residents questioned president Pat Jones about her support of the pier plan and cruise ship practices when the association as a whole had not been asked for its opinion on the matter.
Jones said she feels the ships are best regulated at the national and international level, as the cruise business is a global industry and its boats are registered abroad. “These are not our ships,” she said.
Others strongly disagreed. “When you have a resort-size ship parked down the street two or three times a week, it certainly feels like it’s ours,” former association president Jeremy Willits said.
Jones agreed to appoint a committee to study the issue.
Wendell Robinson, president of the Laurens Place condominium association, already has made up his mind on the ships. His development is next to Union Pier. While he doesn’t object to cruise ships in principle, or to the port making a buck, he and his neighbors grow tired of fighting long lines of passenger traffic just to get in and out of their homes.
“Two ships a week is too much,” he said. “There needs to be some local regulation.”
In late July, the Preservation Society of Charleston issued 13 pages of recommendations for managing the cruise industry. Among other things, the group wants to limit the number of ships visiting Charleston each year and ban ships with more than 500 passengers. It also advocates remote parking near the intersection of Interstates 26 and 526, an advisory committee to oversee the industry and a fee of $5 or so per passenger to fund infrastructure and tourism projects.
Evan Thompson, the society’s executive director, said the cruise industry may be an important economic engine, but it should not escape the oversight afforded to carriage rides, pedicabs, walking tours and other visitor-oriented businesses. “One thing we have learned is that for tourism to be successful it needs to be managed,” he said, “and cruise ships are no exception.”
Port officials said the industry already is highly regulated, and it would be counterproductive for the ships to encounter different regulations in every port. Newsome also said no evidence suggests current environmental regulations fall short or that Charleston Harbor has been mistreated by pleasure ships.
Port officials have resisted the idea of a written decree limiting the number or size of ships. Newsome said the city would be consulted on any change in ship visits, but it would be unwise for the port to agree to arbitrary limits on its business.
Newsome also objects to a remote parking facility and imposing a $5 “head tax” for passengers. Newsome said it would be unfair to single out cruise visitors for a special fee when they represent only a fraction of visiting tourists.
Dana Beach, executive director of the Coastal Conservation League, said the city needs to decide what it wants to be — a destination of culture and heritage or a hub for discount travelers.
“You can’t brand yourself to be Myrtle Beach and Northeast Harbor, Maine, at the same time,” he said. “You have to make a choice.”