January 29, 2023

The Nerve

Where Government Gets Exposed

‘Port Opponents’ List a ‘Port Enemies’ List?

The NerveMore than two dozen Charleston-area businesses have been targeted in an anonymous negative publicity campaign apparently stemming from a long-running struggle in the port city over how to handle its growing cruise ship industry.

The names of the targeted businesses, including some of Charleston’s most popular restaurants and attractions, are featured on a nondescript list labeling them opponents of the Port of Charleston.

The S.C. State Ports Authority, a state agency with broad operating powers, owns and runs the harbor.

The “port opponents” list has been posted in various hospitality businesses in Charleston and circulated throughout the commercial port community, according to port officials and other sources.

Those port officials readily acknowledge the existence of the list and that it has been distributed to and fro. The officials say, however, that they do not know who’s behind the bulletin or who has disseminated it.

John Hassell, vice chairman of the Ports Authority board, says he has seen the list. “Yeah, it’s real,” Hassell says.

The “port opponents” list isn’t exactly on the level of 1950s McCarthyism, when former U.S. Sen. Joe McCarthy, a Republican from Wisconsin, provoked mass hysteria in making unsubstantiated claims that he possessed a list of communists working in the State Department and other realms of the federal government.

Still, some observers see parallels between the two.

“It’s like McCarthy,” says Dana Beach, founder and director of the Coastal Conservation League. “I mean they’re waving this (port) enemies list.”

The Coastal Conservation League is party to a lawsuit challenging the operations of Carnival Cruise Lines in Charleston.

The list contains no identifying information as to who created it, who circulated it and who posted it in certain businesses. It’s just a barebones, 8.5-by-11 sheet of paper that says “PORT OPPONENTS,” with 18 names under “RESTAURANTS,” five names under “HOTELS” and four names under “ATTRACTIONS.”

More and larger cruise ships docking in Charleston appears to be the source of the controversy.

“Increasingly, our ability to flaunt our fair city to home buyers is frustrated by the recent influx of cruise ships,” Thomas Bennett of Carriage Properties writes in a letter to the editor published March 2 in the Charleston Post and Courier.

“These gargantuan ships puffing black exhaust and bellowing horns stand in stark contrast to the distinctive properties we are selling. Traffic is snarled and views of the harbor are blocked.”

Continuing, the letter says, “Twice a week, sometimes more, we must avoid the waterfront, when it is the very place our clients are clamoring to see. Yes, Charleston has accommodated cruise ships for decades, but never at such a high frequency, and certainly not at the immense scale now standard for modern cruise ships today.”

Several other Realtors put their names on the letter, too.

Likewise, a group of hospitality businesspeople penned a column expressing similar concerns in the Post and Courier in April.

A key worry among business, neighborhood, historic and environmental groups in Charleston is how far out to sea cruise ships dump sewage, and whether the nasty stuff washes ashore.

The concerned parties say they recognize and appreciate the economic impact of the Charleston port and do not aim to shut down the cruise ship industry.

Rather, they say they simply want the city to put some reasonable standards on cruise ships, such as limiting the vessels to one at a time and two per week, or 104 per year, in the Charleston harbor.

They also seek a guarantee that the ships will not dump sewage closer than 12 miles to shore.

An open letter to the Ports Authority board posted on a website advocating cruise standards for Charleston makes this case. Forty-six people, many of them representing businesses, community groups or government entities, have attached their names to the letter.

Several of the companies affiliated with that letter are on the “port opponents” list.

Thus far, Charleston City Council has resisted calls to regulate cruise ships, with Mayor Joe Riley arguing that the city lacks the authority to do so.

Instead, the council in September adopted an ordinance setting up a process to “engage the community” at least one year ahead of any plans for cruise traffic to be increased.

Although the groups and individuals concerned about cruise ships openly acknowledge the economic importance of the port, the list makes no such distinction.

Neither do the port officials interviewed for this story who know about the list.

“I’ve seen that circulated,” Ports Authority spokesman Byron Miller says.

So who’s behind it?

“I don’t know,” Miller says. “I know that there are certain people here locally who have aligned themselves with anti-business, anti-job growth initiatives.”

He describes the list as “sort of a word-of-mouth thing” that’s “constantly growing, quite frankly … because there are local businesses that are opposed to the port and its mission.”

But why?

“Don’t know,” Miller says, “can’t answer the question.”

Regardless, people have a right to avoid patronizing such businesses, Miller says.

Hassell, the Ports Authority vice chairman, sounds a similar theme. He says the message of the list to the commercial port community is “these businesses are not supportive of your businesses and your jobs.”

Asked whether the “port opponents” have concerns about cruise ships or the port in general, Hassell says, “I think the general impression is they oppose (port) operations in general.”

So what do they want to do, shut it down?

“Sure,” he says.

Seriously, they want to shut down the port – or perhaps privatize it?

“It’s the latter, I think,” says Hassell, a former interim president of the Ports Authority who now works full time as head of the Maritime Association of South Carolina, a Port of Charleston advocacy group.

Two people whose companies are on the list say it totally misrepresents their position.

“The shameful thing about that is I’m not against the port or the actions that they’re conducting down there,” says Randall Goldman, managing partner and CEO of three of the four attractions on the list.

To the contrary, the port is one of the biggest economic engines in the state, Goldman says. And he says he is all for tourism and the business it creates. But Goldman says what does concern him is Charleston getting choked and degraded by too much cruise traffic.

Goldman says the list is “very unfortunate” in the sluggish economy. “In this economy it’s kind of like a bad restaurant review,” he says. “Let’s let the market dictate who stays in business.”

Steven Dopp, part owner of a hotel on the list, put his name on the open letter supporting cruise ship standards in Charleston.

The letter says those who have signed it support the Ports Authority’s role in the state’s economy. “Clearly these people are not port opponents,” Dopp says.

Reach Ward at (803) 254-4411 or eric@thenerve.org.

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The Nerve