New cruise site pitched


Jacksonville Business Journal - April 13, 2007

by Tony Quesada

Staff Writer

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BLOUNT ISLAND -- Jacksonville Port Authority officials may have developed a creative solution to their puzzle about where to put a permanent cruise terminal that doesn't limit the height of ships sailing from Jacksonville.

Executive Director Rick Ferrin envisions building a pier for berthing two ships at the northern tip of the authority's Blount Island Marine Terminal, bordering the part of the island owned by the Marine Corps.

The site, which ships can reach via Blount Island's east channel, has never been considered for handling vessels of any kind because it has no usable shoreline. It's constrained to the west by a bulk cargo conveyor system and a rarely used bridge that run from the mainland to a point less than 500 feet from the Marine Corps' property line.

To overcome that configuration, the new terminal concept includes building a causeway, parallel to the bridge, from the shore to the middle of the channel and a roughly 600-foot pier at a 90-degree angle from the end of the causeway. On shore, the plan calls for a multilevel terminal and multilevel parking.

"We think this is the solution because it's not dependent on [buying or leasing] anybody else's property," Ferrin said.

The idea will soon be sent to engineers for estimates, Ferrin said. Previous proposals for building a permanent cruise terminal on the west and southwest parts of Blount Island were estimated at $88 million and $72 million, respectively.

Ferrin believes construction could start in 18 to 24 months and the terminal could be in operation a year later.

Long search

If the concept proves feasible, it would end a search for a permanent cruise terminal site that began about the time cruise ships began operating from a temporary facility in Jacksonville. Celebrity Cruises Inc. told the authority in March 2003 that it wanted to base a ship here, prompting the authority to build a temporary terminal on its then-unused property at Dames Point. Celebrity later left this market, but Carnival Cruise Lines arrived in February 2004 and has based its ship Celebration in Jacksonville since October 2004.

Carnival has tapped a niche, drive-to market of about 30 million people who live west and north of Jacksonville. The Celebration embarked 128,745 pass-engers in fiscal 2006. A recent cruise left with 1,896 passengers, far exceeding standard occupancy of 1,486 based on two people per cabin.

Although Carnival has done well in Jacksonville, authority officials soon concluded they needed a cruise terminal that ships can reach without passing under the power lines suspended across the river from the mid-point of Blount Island. Those lines limit ships' heights to about 180 feet, while the Dames Point Bridge to the west further restricts height to 169 feet.

With such constraints in mind, officials became concerned that as cruise lines buy bigger and taller ships, the industry will leave Jacksonville behind when ships that can fit under the lines are retired. Ships approaching the proposed site would never reach the power lines or the bridge.

Ferrin said the Celebration could be sold within a few years to a smaller cruise line serving other parts of the world.

In March 2004, the authority announced a plan to buy about 100 acres near Sisters Creek for a cruise terminal. But the property's owners -- developers with plans for a high-end residential subdivision -- didn't want to sell it, and environmental advocates objected to putting a large commercial project in an ecological preserve. The authority's board later decided not to pursue the property, even though it had authorized the use of eminent domain if needed.

In October 2004, the authority board directed staff to take another look at Blount Island. But in May 2005, the board balked at a proposal by Ferrin to designate 15 acres on Blount Island's west channel for a future terminal. Blount Island tenants were adamant in objecting to using any space for anything other than cargo operations.

While scarcity of space at Blount Island made the board hesitant to put a cruise terminal there, the expectation that container operations will engulf all of Dames Point is partly behind the urgency to find another home. The authority is building a container terminal at Dames Point for TraPac Inc., the stevedoring subsidiary of Mitsui O.S.K. Lines Ltd., which plans to make the terminal its East Coast base. The shipping line will bring the first Asian container service to Jacksonville.

The TraPac terminal is projected to put Jacksonville among the leading ports for container operations. And it's expected that the cruise terminal's space will eventually be needed for that activity, which has a greater economic impact than cruise operations.

Timing right

"By 2010, they're going to want to expand to all of Dames Point," Ferrin said. "If we want to reach our potential as a cruise port and have Dames Point available for cargo, the timing fits."

Ferrin said he's shown the idea to some Blount Island tenants and it addresses their objections to prior plans involving the island because it doesn't displace cargo operations and won't result in

mingling cargo and passenger traffic.

Tony Orsini, the authority's senior director of cruise line operations, doesn't foresee any major engineering hurdles.

"It's going to be tough construction," Orsini said. "But I think we can work around the conveyor pretty effectively. I think the dock will fit nicely in the channel."

And although the project will likely cost more than those previously pitched for other parts of Blount Island, it is partially mitigated by the fact that the power lines won't have to be touched.

Orsini said the biggest challenges may be more operational than engineering, given that the current operations take up 28 acres and the authority hopes to handle up to 500,000 passengers a year on less than 15 acres.

Executives excited

He said the idea has been presented to cruise industry executives who are excited about it.

The authority will have to deal with deepening the east channel. The channel is part of the federal channel, and the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers is responsible for maintaining its depth at 30 feet, Ferrin said. But the kind of ships a cruise terminal would accommodate will have drafts up to 34 feet.

Ferrin said the chances of getting a federal project to increase the depth to 34 feet are slim, so the authority's best course would be to handle that project itself. That could cost about $4 million, based on estimates of having to dredge about a half-million cubic yards. But once it's accomplished, he believes it would be reasonable to petition the Corps of Engineers to maintain that depth.

It would also be necessary to create a turning basin for ships, which can be longer than 900 feet, exceeding the channel width by a few hundred feet.

Orsini said the idea has been shown to people at the Corps of Engineers and preliminary talks "have not turned up any showstoppers."