The state will move its cruise ship terminal from Dundalk to a similar working cargo terminal along the South Locust Point shoreline in 2006, ending the debate for now about how much to invest in Maryland's emerging tourism efforts to lure passengers.
Taxpayers will invest up to $4 million initially to prepare the less-crowded terminal for cruise ships, Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr. said yesterday. South Locust Point has served as a backup berth for the state's cruise ships. It will become the lone spot for Baltimore passengers after the 2005 cruising season.
The state has commissioned several studies during the past two years from traffic to dredging needs as well as the economic impact of the cruise industry. Those findings helped state officials to conclude that building a pricey new "world class" facility in Canton or somewhere else can wait.
"We did take a long time to study this because, let's face it, budgets are an issue these days," said Dennis M. Castleman, an assistant secretary in the Maryland Department of Business and Economic Development. "Right now the numbers don't work and a new facility somewhere else would take a few years. We needed something less expensive and faster to send a message to the cruise lines that we're serious about this."
Castleman insists the state is not giving up on its vision for a posh new terminal in a far less industrial location that could spark more tourism in Maryland. But the cruise business comes and goes and the cruise lines, as well as passengers, appear to be OK with sharing space with cargo such as tractors and pallets of paper.
That led state officials to decide that a dedicated facility with nice bathrooms and ready parking would do for now. But it is not, Castleman said, a permanent decision.
There had been few complaints at the existing facility in Dundalk, the workhorse of the state's public port terminals. But port officials were eager to use the space for more non-human cargo.
James J. White, executive director of the Maryland Port Administration, which runs the public ports, said the South Locust Point site is far less busy than Dundalk because it is used to handle only paper products. There is a warehouse that can be converted, and when a lumber contract expires this year, there will about 6 acres for parking close by.
The site has been used this year for nine cruise ships that sailed in on the same day that other cruise ships were berthed in Dundalk. Some dredging will be necessary to accommodate two ships at the same time at South Locust Point. White estimated that if the state decides to make it a permanent facility, the total price tag for a terminal, dredging and other improvements would be about $30 million.
"As long as it moves out of Dundalk, I'll be happy because there are so many opportunities to grow our cargo business there," White said. "Cruise ships wouldn't interfere with our building plans in South Locust Point."
The state's other option was to build a $30 million to $50 million facility in a corner of the trendy Canton neighborhood where banker and businessman Edwin F. Hale Sr. plans a condo-office-retail development.
Castleman and Hale said they would continue to discuss a more permanent cruise facility on that site, which state studies show now has better access for large cruise ships than does South Locust Point. Hale said that the project would take about two years to build and that he would be willing to finance its development and lease it to the state.
"As a practical matter, they'll be going from one cargo terminal to another cargo terminal with no amenities," Hale said. "The difference between South Locust Point and Canton Crossing would be night and day. The governor would like to do it there, but he's got budget issues. So, we'll keep talking."
In choosing South Locust Point for a dedicated cruise ship terminal, the state is following the direction of a study conducted in 2002 by cruise industry experts. They warned that Baltimore has the potential to attract drive-up cruisers but would never grow into a cruising Mecca the size of New York or Miami.
But there is other competition. Noting investments in new facilities in Bayonne, N.J., and Norfolk, Va., local tourism officials had lobbied the governor to move the cruise terminal to a nicer, less industrial location with proper facilities.
Still, state officials know that the cruise business is fickle. Cruising from Baltimore only took off after the terrorist attacks on Sept. 11, 2001, deterred ships from going to New York. The cruise lines discovered there are growth opportunities in second-tier cities because people liked not having to fly to the traditional cruising points. The number of cruises crept up, and boomed last year with 70. But already, three cruise lines have decided not to return to Baltimore next year.
That leaves Royal Caribbean's 30 cruises in 2005.
Castleman said that some of the cruise lines had only signed on for a year and 30 cruises was more in line with the state's steady growth projections.
But he added that some of the losses "are because we didn't show them our desire to provide them with a nice dedicated facility. The secretary [of economic development] and the governor do have a vision for tourism. We'd like a world-class facility, but right now, this is our budget."