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As a cruise ship task force was briefed Wednesday, Alderman Tony Thomas signaled to its members that the debate on a terminal in Savannah is likely to end with City Council quashing the idea today.
Twelve task force members, including Thomas, heard a summary of a site feasibility study prepared for the city by BEA Architects. The $197,500 report recommended the Savannah River Landing site as the most promising for cruise terminal development, said staff liaison Marty Johnson, Savannah’s director of special projects.
Johnson rehashed Monday’s council workshop at which BEA Architects presented its findings. The fact that the task force was getting old news didn’t allow it to perform the advisory role he had anticipated for it, Thomas said.
After the meeting, Thomas said City Council isn’t likely to approve the next phase of the study, an $82,000 exploration of the land-side issues of the top one or two potential sites.
“I would believe there are not five votes on the council for this,” he said.
Joe Cetti, a task force member who has long been in favor of the initiative, hoped aloud that Thomas was wrong.
“It needs to go to the next step,” said Cetti, commissioner of pilotage for the city of Savannah.
That view has some opposition in the public. A grassroots organization called Be Smart Savannah has been leaning on council to reject the cruise terminal. On Wednesday, the Downtown Neighborhood Association president did, too, with an email to the mayor and City Council pointing out that the latest study “highlights the genuine difficulties and potential costs of construction.”
“Savannah citizens are facing a likely property tax increase, a vote on another local option sales tax is looming, and a new arena has been promised but isn’t fully funded,” he wrote. “The benefits of constructing a cruise ship terminal are uncertain, the environmental burdens are well established, and public opposition is significant.”
Discussion at the task force meeting turned to that cost. Thomas was skeptical of an $80 million estimate, saying he didn’t know where that number came from.
However, BEA’s initial report suggests a two-phase terminal with a total cost of $70 million. That’s for a temporary, start-up terminal and then a permanent one, but doesn’t include many necessary inputs, including debt service, said Kent Harrington, a founder of Be Smart Savannah who did not attend the meeting. Harrington said the higher estimate is not without precedent: The terminal in Mobile cost $26 million and that city already owned the land. Savannah doesn’t own any of the sites under consideration. Houston’s terminal cost about $106 million.
Johnson noted the BEA study did not include land costs or infrastructure. Those items could quickly swell the investment. Bulkheads can cost $40,000 to $50,000 per linear foot with 800-1,000 feet needed to accommodate cruise ships, said task force member Chris Novack of the Georgia Ports Authority.
The consultant’s phase 2 study was surprisingly thorough, said task force member Reed Dulany.
“I was sure they would leave glaring holes and not talk to the (river) pilots or the Coast Guard,” he said. “But they did a really good job all the way across the board and contacted every group that would be concerned.”
Still, the consultants softened their findings by saying none of the sites had a “fatal flaw,” said Dulany, CEO of Dulany Industries. Dulany is a member of the Downtown Neighborhood Association and the Historic Savannah Foundation, but he emphasized he was speaking for himself only.
“My question is what site would represent a fatal flaw, Forsyth Park?” Dulany asked after the meeting. “Not really, you could dig a channel through and hit Forsyth Park.”
Despite the likely “no” vote today, Thomas said the close to $250,000 the city paid for the studies (as well as another $80,000 from other state and local sources) was money well spent.
“One thing you can say about this task force is that it did its due diligence looking at Savannah as a possible home port,” Thomas said. “If anything the small amount of public money invested was wiser than going out and building a facility that wasn’t right, didn’t work or can’t be used. An example of that is the Hutchinson Island race track.”