New cruise dock on hold

Given its fiscal woes, the state isn't likely to build fancy terminal

'White glove' treatment needed

Number of liners visiting port to grow from 35 to 60

March 07, 2004|By Meredith Cohn | Meredith Cohn,SUN STAFF

The port of Baltimore is cruising this year, with more than 60 luxury liners scheduled to make the voyage up the Chesapeake Bay to pick up passengers - close to double last year's number.

Spinoff spending and tax revenue from the cruise industry are welcomed in Maryland and Baltimore, which are seeking new ways to promote the Inner Harbor as a tourist destination.

But with the first cruise ship setting sail this month, officials are renewing calls for a new terminal that would offer a friendlier face than a metal shed at the industrial port.

Cruise lines discovered non-traditional ports along the East Coast after the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks diverted ships from New York and scared off passengers flying to Florida. Tourists bound for the Bahamas and Canada from Mid-Atlantic ports began driving to places such as Baltimore, Philadelphia and Norfolk, Va.

Baltimore, known as a major port of entry for immigrants in the early 1900s, quickly latched on to these new passengers. But a consultant's report released in 2002 advised Maryland officials to proceed cautiously in an industry where preferences shift with the wind. Even so, some still envisioned a booming cruise-ship business with a proper facility at the port.

Aris Melissaratos, the state secretary of business and economic development, said he did not like the idea of 115,000 people embarking on 35 luxury cruises last year after passing through the gritty cranes and storage areas for imported automobiles at Dundalk Marine Terminal.

"They should be getting the white glove treatment," he said. "The passengers may not mind Dundalk, but Maryland is missing out. We should have a premier facility that makes people say, `Wow, look at Maryland,' and want to come back and spend the night and shop."

Melissaratos said he wanted to have a new terminal under construction by now but acknowledged that sufficient political support may be lacking. Obtaining $50 million or more for a new terminal would be politically difficult when Baltimore faces a fiscal crisis in its schools and the legislature is struggling to pay the state Medicaid tab.

So, the ships will keep calling on Dundalk, and studies will continue.

Several sites are under consideration for such a terminal, including a public berth at South Locust Point, which is less crowded than the Dundalk terminal.

The frontrunner is in Canton, southeast of the Inner Harbor, on land owned by banker and businessman Edwin F. Hale Sr. He has been transforming the once-industrial site into Canton Crossing, 20 acres of offices, hotels and shops.

Hale has approval for a 224-slip marina but would prefer to build the state its new cruise ship terminal. About three years ago when he first proposed his site, he estimated costs of $20 million to $30 million - a relative bargain because little dredging would be needed.

But security concerns and a requirement to accommodate federal customs and immigration officials have since pushed costs up to at least $50 million.

"A cruise ship terminal would be more advantageous to this area than another marina, and I'd like to stick with it," he said. "I can't push the state, especially when they have other things on the front burner. But I'm not in a position where I need to rush."

In the meantime, cruise-ship lines are cementing their deals with other ports.

Royal Caribbean Cruises Ltd., which operates Royal Caribbean and Celebrity lines and accounts for about half of Baltimore's business, inked a deal with New Jersey's port as the home for two of the company's ships. The cruise line also has a long-term plan to build and operate a new terminal in Bayonne.

Murray Markin, a cruising consultant in Boca Raton, Fla., said New Jersey had an edge over Baltimore because of its proximity to New York, which has regained its footing since Sept. 11 and may not be able to handle all of its business. New York and Florida get 30 to 50 ships a week, he said.

But Baltimore is not without advantages, particularly because it is within a day's drive of much of the populous East Coast.

"Baltimore is relatively small and new," he said. "It will never be a New York. It will never be what Florida is, given its proximity to the Caribbean. If it continues to be successful, it will grow, and if not, it won't. That's the risk in building a new terminal."

Port officials say there is more than one reason to build the terminal.

A new facility in the Inner Harbor would show off Baltimore's amenities and possibly cause passengers to spend money on a hotel, dinner and souvenirs - or possibly slot machines if an expansion of gambling is approved by the state legislature this year.

Another reason is space, said Darlene Frank, a port spokeswoman. The port gets close to 2,000 cargo ships a year, greatly outnumbering passenger ships. The area now used by the cruise lines is needed for additional storage space for paper goods, automobiles and other bulky commodities.

"We're just busting at the seams in terms of cargo capacity," she said. "Think about the amount of luggage and passengers and cars from one ship. Miami can handle 10-plus ships at a time, and we struggle with two."

The port now makes little directly from the ships. But officials estimate a new terminal would be profitable with 80 ships calling a year, about 20 more than scheduled this year.

Travel agent Lauren Levin at Royal Travel Planner on Charles Street said she sees the business growing.

And while she's heard no complaints about Dundalk, she agrees that a nicer terminal with amenities nearby would allow the city to capture more tourist dollars.

"The cruise lines can't keep up with demand. They get overbooked," she said. "We could only benefit from a new terminal. A lot of people want to make an event out of it and stay one or two nights."

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