BY TOM DALTON
---- — SALEM — The Grande Caribe pulled into the Blaney Street landing last week, a glimmering white ship carrying 64 passengers.
This was the first cruise vessel to dock here in five years, but it won’t be the last. Another ship may stop in October, and the 184-foot Grande Caribe, which sails the New England and Canadian coast, expects to return next year.
Even bigger plans are afloat.
Although Salem appears a likely port-of-call for small to medium-sized vessels, the city is also eyeing the occasional larger ship with more than 1,000 passengers and, if all goes well, up to a dozen cruise ship visits during the tourist season.
While the business community may be cheering, the next-door neighbors are concerned.
With that in mind, Mayor Kim Driscoll wrote a letter this month to residents in the Derby Street area to explain the city’s plans and try to allay some fears.
“In general, most cruise ships visiting Salem will be under 500 passengers,” she stated in an Aug. 15 letter. “While the berth at Footprint can support vessels carrying over 1,000 people, we do not anticipate that many ships of this size would be visiting during the course of a year.”
The mayor mentioned Footprint Power, the owners of the 65-acre power plant site next to the ferry landing, because she is negotiating an agreement with them to use their dock and to build a pathway over to the Blaney Street landing. The power plant’s deep-water dock, which welcomed huge coal ships, is just off the federal channel and the ideal spot, officials say, for larger cruise ships.
In July, the city filed a request with the state to make improvements to the power plant dock in order to handle cruise ships. That has triggered a letter-writing campaign for and against the permit request.
In her letter to neighbors, the mayor cited the economic benefits of cruise ships.
“Port development is a high priority for the city as both an economic development and tourism initiative,” she wrote. “We look forward to additional cruise ships visiting our city to help support our restaurants, retail establishments and attractions, which, in turn, add to our tax base and provide local jobs.
“Industry estimates from 2011 are that 50 percent of passengers return to a destination to visit again. A standard ship can generate close to $285,000 in spending at a destination during a single stop.”
Driscoll also mentioned steps that would be taken to lessen the impact on neighbors, and she pointed out that Salem regularly handles much larger crowds, including the July 4 celebration and the Maritime Festival in the Derby Street neighborhood.
The board of the Historic Derby Street Neighborhood Association, which did its own analysis of cruise ship data, wrote back a few days later. They were not impressed with the mayor’s math.
“The upshot of the data presented here suggests that your economic benefit expectations are inflated, and that your attempt to soft-pedal the environmental pressure on our neighborhood does not stand up to analysis,” they wrote.
The board said it feared that cruise ship passengers, unlike the crowds here for July 4 or other events, would “have no choice but to traipse through our neighborhood, increasing the levels of trash and noise, including the increased potential for vandalism.”
The board said it did not support the mayor’s plan to bring 1000-plus passenger vessels to Salem but called “more reasonable” an earlier plan to attract smaller vessels,
Even if smaller, 500-passenger ships come here, the neighborhood group said it wants to see a plan to minimize foot traffic and would like city revenues from docking and disembarking fees to go for “infrastructure improvements” in the area and to increase the police presence.
The Historic Derby Street Neighborhood Association will meet with Driscoll on Sept. 9 when the mayor makes an annual visit to the group.
Tom Dalton can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.