It wasn’t that many years ago that the future of Salem’s seaport seemed to be in coal ships. It was not an inviting prospect.
So, when the first cruise ship docked in Salem around 2004, it was cause for celebration. For the first time, residents could look at an area of the waterfront dominated by a power plant and a sewage treatment facility and envision something better. It helped to spur plans to attract more, and bigger, cruise ships in the future.
Even the state kicked in with money to help Salem launch its ferry service and redevelop the area. Next on the agenda are plans to upgrade the deep-water dock on power plant property to make Salem more accessible to larger cruise ships and to build a walkway linking that pier to the ferry landing.
But now that the vision is starting to look less like a dream — heck, some might have said a hallucination — and more like a reality, Derby Street homeowners are starting to worry. In online posts and written letters, they talk about ship passengers being “dumped” in a “residential neighborhood” to “traipse” down their streets — noisy, littering, and probably vandalizing property as they go. One post described them as “ugly,” too.
Anyone who’s lived through Halloween in Salem can understand the reaction, and we applaud the Historic Derby Street Neighborhood Association for taking a careful look at the issue and doing its best to protect those for whom this city is a home, not a tourist attraction.
At the same time, however, it’s important to acknowledge that passengers on cruise ships are a different species of tourist than the rowdy, young-adult revelers who, in years past, drove everyone to distraction on Halloween. Cruise passengers tend to be older couples — age 50 and up — with money to spend. Typically, they would be here for a single day, usually at midweek; they’d disembark, see the sights, sample the restaurants, buy some souvenirs and head back to the ship to leave for the next port of call.
There could be more than 1,000 people at a time, but they won’t have cars — meaning the traffic congestion that is the bane of peak tourist season here would be minimal. They could take trolleys or have buses ready to meet them, or walk to the sights in the Derby Street neighborhood and downtown.
That would be a welcome development for many of the neighbors along the way, because the neighborhood, after all, is not just residential but also commercial — and it always has been. It includes The House of the Seven Gables, Pickering Wharf, the Salem Maritime National Historic Site and dozens of businesses, from ice cream parlors and restaurants to florists and gift shops. Indeed, one of the arguments the neighborhood made to National Grid in opposing its plans to dig up Derby Street was that it would disrupt so many businesses. Instead, the project is expected to move to a quieter residential neighborhood off Salem Common.
For Salem residents, this is a familiar issue. There are times when the influx of tourists drives us nuts, and, yet, we love the money they bring in; the seasonal jobs they provide, particularly for teenagers; and the lively restaurant scene they help to sustain. It’s a trade-off. And in that context, the arrival of what is estimated to be, at most, a dozen cruise ships over the course of a summer does not seem overwhelming.
By all means, let’s monitor the impact and do what we can to minimize disruptions to Ward 1 residents. But let’s not change course now and try to hold back the city’s long-planned waterfront development. That’s something that can benefit everyone in Salem.