ATLANTIC CITY — It’s not exactly full speed ahead, but Mayor Don Guardian’s proposal to bring cruise ships and their well-heeled passengers to the seaside resort will be studied by a state agency that oversees the Atlantic City Tourism District.
The Casino Reinvestment Development Authority will have a consultant investigate the costs and logistics of having smaller cruise ships make Atlantic City a port of call.
John Palmieri, CRDA executive director, stressed that the engineering firm AECOM’s work for the authority is just a preliminary step to determine whether the idea is worth pursuing, including whether there is any interest by the cruise industry in Atlantic City.
“We want to look at the hard realities of doing this,” Palmieri said in an interview Thursday.
However, cruise industry analyst Stewart Chiron believes Atlantic City officials should not waste their time courting the cruise lines because they have virtually no interest in sailing here. One drawback, he said, is that Atlantic City is simply too close to established cruise departure ports on the East Coast, such as New York City and Bayonne.
Chiron also maintained that cruise passengers would rather spend their time in the Caribbean islands, Bermuda and other exotic destinations rather than devoting part of their vacation to Atlantic City.
“It’s not a stop that cruise passengers want to make,” he said.
Palmieri strongly disagreed with Chiron’s comments.
“My gut tells me we have enough assets here. We are building assets,” Palmieri said. “We have casinos, shows and events that can create legitimate points of interest for visitors.”
The hope that cruise liners would someday sail into Atlantic City has been discussed for years, but was revived last month when Guardian told the European-American Chamber of Commerce he believes the resort could accommodate smaller ships about 200 feet long.
Chiron, though, said there is no such thing as a 200-foot cruise ship. Many cruise liners are megaships that are about 1,000 feet long and carry thousands of passengers. Chiron said the smallest liner he knows of is a 335-foot, 210-passenger ship operated by Pearl Sea Cruises, a luxury cruise company.
Among other routes, Pearl Sea Cruises will use the 335-foot Pearl Mist for cruises between New England and the Bahamas, making stops at East Coast cities along the way. Chiron suggested that Pearl Sea might be the only line to consider stopping in Atlantic City. A Pearl Sea spokeswoman did not return messages seeking comment.
Guardian hopes that cruise ships could enhance the redevelopment of Historic Gardner’s Basin, the city’s maritime park overlooking Absecon Inlet. The city plans to seek development proposals later this year for 22 acres of Gardner’s Basin as it looks to diversify its tourist-based economy with more non-casino attractions.
Currently, the vast majority of Atlantic City’s nearly 27 million annual visitors arrive by car. Cruise ships would add an entirely new element in the quest for wealthy tourists. Cruise ship passengers would be counted on to spread their money around at the casinos, restaurants and shops while touring Atlantic City.
Palmieri noted that the CRDA is simply testing the waters at this point for cruise ships. AECOM is expected to submit a report to the CRDA in about 30 days on how much it might cost to attract the cruise lines and what sort of facilities would need to be built.
“It’s not a new subject, but we haven’t really investigated the engineering issues,” Palmieri said, alluding to the city’s longtime discussions for cruise ships.
The CRDA’s involvement appears to strengthen the mayor’s proposal to tap the cruise industry for more tourists. The CRDA runs the city’s Tourism District and is a key piece of Gov. Chris Christie’s five-year plan to revive the struggling resort town following a prolonged slump in visitation and casino revenue. Using money it receives from the casino industry, the CRDA has funded hundreds of millions of dollars in housing projects and economic development throughout the city during its 30-year existence.
Tom Sykes, a principal with the Atlantic City-based SOSH Architects, said he spoke with the Philadelphia firm Urban Engineers and was assured that Atlantic City’s waterways could handle cruise ships as long as 340 feet. Sykes stated one possible docking point for ships is the old Capt. Starn’s restaurant site, a parcel of land in the Northeast Inlet close to where the Atlantic City Aquarium is located.
“They do believe a 340-foot ship could be accommodated at the old Capt. Starn’s site and make a turn back out to sea,” said Sykes, who made some informal inquiries on behalf of Guardian.
AECOM, a global engineering firm, will take the cruise ship proposal to the next level for the CRDA. An AECOM representative who is working on the project is Sam Donelson, a former acting executive director of the South Jersey Transportation Authority, the operator of the Atlantic City Expressway and Atlantic City International Airport. Donelson could not be reached for comment.
One local businessman wants to meet with Guardian to discuss the possibility of arranging Atlantic City cruises or some other type of boat service. He said he’s been thinking about the idea for 15-20 years and remains surprised that the city has not capitalized on its oceanfront location to attract cruise lines.
“I’ve always said that Atlantic City’s most important asset is the ocean. But they never took advantage of it,” said Lou Bergamesco, owner of the Egg Harbor Township consulting company LGM. “When I go to Italy and Europe, they have watercraft moving around constantly.”
Bergamesco, who is considering cruises, water taxis or ferry service, said there are plenty of ships currently berthed in dry docks that could be reactivated for Atlantic City.
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