Cruise line says Clarke is protecting local rival Head of council denies favoritism

March 11, 1992|By John H. Gormley Jr. | John H. Gormley Jr.,Staff Writer

The people at Spirit Cruises Inc. have begun to suspect Baltimore is looking for a place to hide its welcome mat.

The Norfolk-based company hopes to offer harbor cruises aboard a vessel called the Spirit of Baltimore starting in April. The company, which announced in October its intention to come to Baltimore, says it has invested $4 million in its Baltimore operation and expects to hire 150 people here.

But Robert S. Hillman, Spirit Cruises' lawyer, says Baltimore City Council President Mary Pat Clarke is pushing legislation whose prime purpose is to make life difficult for Spirit Cruises.

The proposed zoning ordinance would require City Council approval of any new passenger dock in the city. Under existing rules, such passenger terminals are permitted in industrial zones without that kind of approval. "Clearly, it's a bill designed to eliminate competition," Mr. Hillman said.

He has charged that Ms. Clarke introduced the bill to protect Harbor Cruises Ltd., a cruise operator owned by two of her political supporters, Larry and Beverly Stappler. "The bill was introduced at the instigation of Harbor Cruises," Mr. Hillman said.

The Stapplers make no bones about being upset by the threat Spirit Cruises poses to their business, which has operated from the Inner Harbor for a decade. "They let the word out they were here to bury us. We're here to see they don't," Mrs. Stappler said.

She said she approached Rep. Helen Delich Bentley, R-Md.-2nd, in November and asked her to investigate whether Spirit Cruises was violating U.S. maritime laws governing foreign-owned vessels. The answer Mrs. Stappler received from Mrs. Bentley's office was that Spirit Cruises was a U.S. company.

Mrs. Stappler also acknowledges that she turned to Ms. Clarke for help. But Mrs. Stappler and Ms. Clarke deny that the bill was written to protect Harbor Cruises.

The bill was introduced Dec. 9, about a month and a half before the two women met at Ms. Stappler's request on Jan. 24 to discuss Spirit Cruises. Mrs. Stappler said Monday that she was unaware of the bill until after it was drafted. "That's the God's honest truth. I knew nothing about it," she said. "For them to accuse us of sponsoring the bill is absolute nonsense."

She said she doesn't want any special treatment for Harbor Cruise, only to make sure that whatever rules are in effect are strictly enforced for everyone. "I want to know what the rules are," she said. "They have to follow the same rules we have to follow."

As for pulling political strings, she said that charge might more appropriately be lodged against Spirit Cruises in hiring Mr. Hillman for his connections to city government. He was city labor commissioner in the early 1970s.

Not true, countered Mr. Hillman, noting that he started doing legal work for Spirit Cruises about five years ago, long before the company decided to come to Baltimore.

Mrs. Stappler further said that although she and her husband have supported Ms. Clarke, they made only small contributions to her campaign. "She owes me nothing," Mrs. Stappler said.

Records of campaign contributions show that Harbor Cruises and Mr. Stappler donated $300 to Ms. Clarke in 1991.

Ms. Clarke agreed that the Stapplers were not the inspiration for the bill. "Nobody ever asked for any legislation," said Ms. Clarke, who sponsored the bill.

The impetus for the bill, she said, was a long, difficult debate last year about a bill governing marinas that sensitized her to the potential impact of waterfront operations on surrounding neighborhoods. When she learned Spirit Cruises planned to operate in Baltimore, she decided to sponsor a bill. But the bill was not directed at Spirit Cruises and should not affect the Spirit Cruises dock at the foot of Federal Hill along Key Highway, she said.

Her concern, she said, was largely to ensure that cruise customers have enough parking so they don't cause problems in the surrounding neighborhoods. She said that should not be a problem for Spirit Cruises. "They've got tons of parking over there," she said. "All I'm saying is don't park in the neighborhoods."

Spirit Cruises has about 240 parking spaces at its terminal for the Spirit of Baltimore, which can accommodate 420 passengers. Harbor Cruises has two vessels, the 500-passenger Bay Lady and the 400-passenger Lady Baltimore. Harbor Cruises has no parking spaces for its passengers but offers a 25 percent discount to customers who park at the Harbor Court Hotel garage.

Last month, the bill was reviewed by the city planning commission. It recommended an amendment to require that passenger terminals be approved by the zoning board rather than the City Council.

vTC Such a bill would be much more acceptable to Spirit Cruises, which has a three-year lease at Federal Hill. Mr. Hillman had feared that giving the Council power to approve or disapprove a passenger terminal would have made it virtually impossible for his client to find a new site when the current lease expires.

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