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Monday, January 11, 2010 - 9:53am

Savannah Lawmakers Seek Cruise Ship Study

As the General Assembly convenes, lawmakers from across the state will be seeking funding for various projects. In Savannah, officials are looking for something "exciting and new."

Savannah wants the legislature to fund a study into cruise ships for the city's famed waterfront. Boosters say, cruise ships would bring tourist dollars. But they also could bring a debate that's anything but new.

Tourism is Savannah's No.1 industry and many believe, that industry could grow even more if the city dipped even partly into the nation's $38 billion cruise ship industry. City Alderman Tony Thomas is leading the effort to bring cruise ships here.

"When you look at the potential of thousands of people coming to the city, I think all of that adds into entreprenuerial business and job creation," Thomas says.

Savannah has a picture-postcard waterfront, but it needs a dedicated cruise ship dock and other infrastructure before the first passenger can disembark. A cruise ship consultant, Peter Whelpton, told city leaders this fall that if Savannah builds it, the jobs will come.

"You're going to need food suppliers. You're going to need the police department, the fire department, the dentists, the doctors, the hospitals. You're going to need labor, transportation," says Whelpton. "It goes on and on."

But whether the benefits indeed go on and on is something other port cities have struggled with. Freelance writer Anne Boese moved to Savannah from Key West in part to get away from cruise ships.

"Inevitably, the question becomes, what kind of visitor are we trying to attract?" says Boese.

Savannah has tried in recent years to attract a higher-spending, longer-staying visitor. And so far, those efforts have paid off.

Cruise ships attract a lower-spending, shorter-staying visitor, according to business group studies. Key West resident Al Sullivan says, the difference changes a city's character.

"The cruise ships don't bring in a ton of money. The average cruise ship passenger probably spends about $25 in port, which is not a lot of money compared to people who come by other means," Sullivan says. "There are a lot of T-shirt shops. There are a lot of fast-food type restaurants."

Sullivan runs a group that successfully sued Key West to force the city to study how thousands of short-term visitors affect the city's quality of life, everything from more traffic on the streets and more pollution in the air to how much money they spend.

Cruise ship industry officials disagree with the $25 per day figure. They say, the average cruise ship passenger spends $100 per day.

According to the Savannah Convention and Visitors Bureau, that's less than what Savannah visitors spend when they arrive by plane, $275 per day, which includes lodging, but about equal to what visitors spend when they arrive by car, $100 per day, which does not include lodging.

Savannah State Represenative Ron Stephens says, the study he'd like funded focuses on the economic benefits.

"We're just looking for nominal numbers to get to the basic infrastructure, what's it going to generate on a yearly basis," say Stephens.

In some respects, many quality of life debates that cruise ship ports have had Savannah already had 20-years-ago in the 1980's tourism boom. Back then, tempers frayed as tourists filled streets.

Today, Savannah tourism might be big enough and cruise ship traffic small enough to avoid a repeat.

Key West Mayor Craig Cates says, it's worth knowing and managing down sides, but not stopping for them.

"I don't think we'd really do anything differently," Cates says. "It's been a good business for the city and we've adapted to the type of customers they are."

Or as Alderman Tony Thomas puts it, "A million dollars in T-shirts generates the same taxes as a million dollars in high-priced steaks."

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