Time for Savannah to pull the plug on cruise ship dreams

I’d be writing about this issue for my City Talk column this coming Sunday, but apparently Savannah City Council will consider on Thursday whether to move ahead with another phase in studies regarding the viability of a cruise ship terminal on the riverfront.

From today’s Savannah Morning News piece about the just-released study of potential terminal sites:

The Savannah River Landing site near President’s Street has emerged as the best option for a cruise ship terminal and berthing facility should the city decide to develop as a port for the cruise ship industry, consultants told the Savannah City Council on Tuesday.

The Savannah River Landing site, the only one of three proposed sites on the Savannah side of the river, edged out upriver sites at the Atlantic Cement tract near the Eugene Talmadge Memorial Bridge and the Powell Duffryn site near the Savannah International Trade & Convention Center.

“All three sites have challenges,” said Bruno-Elias Ramos, principal-in-charge of BEA Architects, which prepared the study for the city at a cost of about $190,000. “But we did not find any fatal flaws at any of the sites.”

First, keep in mind that BEA itself would benefit by the continuation of studies, and BEA would likely bid to build any cruise ship terminal here. Those are big red flags that, while not necessarily disqualifying, raise automatic concerns about the integrity of this entire process.

Click here to watch yesterday’s entire Council workshop session, or you can read in the SMN the list of complex — and no doubt very expensive — obstacles that the three considered sites present.

For the remainder of this post, I’m going to set aside the entire issue of whether a cruise ship terminal represents the best use of prime riverfront space or whether that model of tourism is one that will truly benefit the city. (Consider that we’re right now seeing huge investments in new hotels at both ends of River Street — and that’s without gambling millions on a cruise ship terminal.)

Instead, I’m going to focus here on the cost and the politics.

The Savannah River Landing site — deemed the best site considered — would require significant public expenditures for land acquisition ($10 million? $20? just guessing), for major upgrades to the sewer system, for considerable “enhancement” of the current bulkhead and riverwalk, for upgrades to the water system, etc.

And all of that would presumably come on top of construction of an actual terminal. There’s no cost cited in today’s SMN piece, but an article from March of this year noted BEA’s 2011 estimate that the terminal would cost $88 million.

Now, it seems like there are two ways to pay for this: bonds or SPLOST.

As I’ve said many times, I think many of the criticisms alleging over-the-top spending by the City of Savannah are unfounded, but the political reality is that many, many citizens — voters — do not trust that their tax dollars are being spent wisely and frugally.

Given the uncertainties of the cruise ship business, the simple fact is that there is no guarantee that a cruise ship terminal would be used. So we’re talking about a massive public investment with a reasonable likelihood of producing jobs and economic activity — but a reasonable likelihood is far, far, far from a certainty. (The publicly financed cruise ship terminal in Mobile is now sitting empty.)

At this point in the ongoing economic recovery, it simply seems foolhardy for the city to take on $88 million-plus in bond debt to pay for this.

And if the City of Savannah decides to commit a large percentage of revenues from the next SPLOST, which will be considered by voters in the fall, then there’s an increased risk of losing that vote. The current SPLOST was approved 60-40 in 2006, but since then we’ve seen a dramatic change in voter attitudes and we witnessed last year’s thumping of T-SPLOST, which had more built-in controls in terms of funding and project management than SPLOST does.

Given what we know right now, I’d vote against a SPLOST that includes tens of millions for a cruise ship terminal, and I suspect many others would do the same.

The city is going to have enough trouble selling the public on a SPLOST that includes big ticket items like the arena and the new police headquarters that voters thought they would be getting after the 2006 vote.

Maybe in a decade, after the City of Savannah catches up with major projects that were first planned years ago and after we get a better sense if the current woes in the cruise ship industry are the new norm, we could look again at the possibility of a terminal.

As I’ve noted, this entire question has been approached without any apparent input from the Georgia Ports Authority, which I’m guessing would have major concerns about the strict schedules of cruise ships.

And the entire process so far has been handled without adequate chances for substantive public discussion.

So it’s time to pull the plug on all of this. One could argue that we should continue the studies since that would only require another $90,000 — less then $1 per city resident. But continuation of the studies and the public debate would then drag the controversy right into the campaigns for and against the upcoming SPLOST vote.

If city officials move ahead with this project now, they will be imperiling some projects that Savannah truly needs.