By Mike Lednovich
French mathematician Narges Obaid famously said: “Don’t trust everything you see. Even salt looks like sugar.”
At the Ocean Highway and Port Authority’s public master plan workshop Thursday to discuss elements of its proposed plan for the Port of Fernandina, the port was promising sugar. The plan promotes controlled port business growth with minimal impact on the quality of life for both downtown residents and Amelia Island at large. One of the port’s narratives is adding more cruise ships they claim will stimulate passengers’ spending downtown and elsewhere.
“We’re targeting small, high end, ports of call cruise ships,” said David Kaufman, Port of Fernandina executive director. “We’re targeting anywhere from a half dozen to a dozen (cruise) ships a year.”
The 170-passenger Ocean Explorer is scheduled for April and the 490-passenger Seven Seas Navigator is scheduled in May, according to Kaufman.
But the majority of those attending the workshop, however, said they were wary in regard to the port’s plans to have more cruise ships visit Fernandina Beach. Of the 25 people polled by the Observer as they left the workshop, only one person liked the proposed cruise ship plan.
“I’d say the cruise lines were the most discussed (topic) this evening,” said Justin Cole of RS&H, consultants on the master plan. “Most of the people wanted to know about the operations, how big the ships would be, how many passengers and the plan once they got into town, and where would they go. We had some good turnout, good comments. We’ve got some things to consider but also some positive support.”
Tim Poynter, a longtime downtown businessman with restaurants, a putt-putt complex and a duck pin bowling center, strongly opposes the idea of cruise ships at the Port of Fernandina.
“How do we support a cruise ship dropping off 200 people or 500 people? They’re talking about busing people to Kingsley Plantation or Jax Beach but what are they going to have 20 or 30 buses lined up using Front Street or Dade Street. Our infrastructure won’t support that,” he said. “Even the Tourist Development Council is against this. The TDC promotes bringing ‘heads in beds,’ cruise passengers are bringing their own beds. They’re not going to spend their dollars in the community, they’re going to overburden the community, then they’re going to get back on their boat and leave. We’re going to be left picking up the pieces and garbage until the next cruise ship arrives.”
Poynter has two new projects in the works near and adjacent to the port – a multi-use pavilion on Second Street next to his putt-putt business and a 19-room boutique motel on Front Street next to the port’s warehouse complex.
“When downtown is busy there’s a lot of people and these are people who live on the island, some are day-trippers, now you’re adding hundreds more people to that and now you tell me about that improves the quality of life,” Poynter said.
Charlie and Janet Calhoun purchased a home on Dade Street near the port several years ago and became concerned with the amount of truck traffic to the port on Dade.
“Our concerns coming to this meeting was noise and the potential smell from fertilizer the port said it wanted to have come in,” Charlie Calhoun said.
“The flow of traffic in town is a great concern to us, not just on Dade and Eighth Street,” Janet Calhoun said. “We’re like this wonderful little community so adding more cruise ships and traffic would be terrible. The concern is these bigger plans for the future.”
Taina Christner is a downtown homeowner who said she left the workshop with some answers to questions but others were unmet.
“I would support cruise ships if they would put a cap on the passenger size of 500 people in the master plan but I was told they don’t want to limit it. Without a limit on passengers, I’m passionately against it,” she said. “I’m not convinced cruise passengers will have a positive economic impact on downtown Fernandina. Having been on cruises I know you get breakfast, lunch and dinner, so why pay for lunch outside. I not convinced these passengers will be looking at the type of shops we offer. I think it’s a big influx of people without the economic impact we’re looking for.”
William Elder has lived on the island for 42 years and is concerned about the environmental impact of the port on air quality.
“There is no electrical capability to the ships so they run their boilers continuously throwing pollutants into the air. Now coupled with the two paper mills and the truck traffic and you’ve got a lot of air pollution,” Elder said. “The only way for the port to grow is more containers and that’s more trucks.”
Port officials said comments and written statements from the workshop will be documented and the master plan adjusted accordingly. The port master plan will be presented to the Ocean Highway and Port Authority Commission at its second meeting in February for approval. The plan, if approved, would then be presented to the City of Fernandina Beach City Commission for approval.
“That gives us another month to consider if we need another workshop,” Kaufman said.