Cabot Lyman, who owns a boatyard and a boutique hotel called 250 Main in downtown Rockland, says he thinks an influx of large cruise ships would erode the town’s quaint and upscale brand. “It’s not about money,” Lyman said. “It’s about the community.”

Last of three parts

ROCKLAND — If there was any doubt that the future of cruise ships has become a huge issue in this midcoast city of 7,200, it was dispelled one May night at City Hall.

A citizens group unfurled a printout of people who had signed an online petition calling for a 180-day moratorium on large cruise ship visits to the city. The list stretched across the chamber where the City Council was meeting, and organizers said it contained more than 750 names from around the world.

Cruise ships hadn’t been on the council’s agenda, but after numerous residents spoke up in favor of a moratorium, the council agreed to consider holding an advisory referendum to gauge public opinion.

Until recently, Bar Harbor and Portland had the market for large cruise ships cornered. But Rockland – with a capacious deep-water harbor, an attractive downtown and easy access to Camden and Rockport – is on the cruise industry’s radar. Problem is, the city is bitterly divided over whether it wants to build the infrastructure to attract more big ships or block them from visiting altogether.

An emerging consensus among cruise tourism researchers is that this is exactly what new port destinations should be doing: figuring out what the community wants out of its relationship with the cruise lines and creating policies, regulations and investments that will make that happen. Small ports like Rockland, they say, can learn from the mistakes of other places that proceeded with an ad hoc approach and wound up regretting it.

“If you’re going into business with somebody, wouldn’t you want to do your own research and negotiate, rather than just trust their word?” asks Ross Klein of Memorial University of Newfoundland, who studies cruise industry impacts. “Cruise lines come in, they ask for everything they want, and they walk away with the money, while the port ends up with a pittance and a mortgage.”

 

Former Mayor Louise MacLellan-Ruf, who favors a moratorium on cruise ship visits until residents decide whether they want them, believes 50- to 200-passenger ships are a perfect fit for Rockland.

TOURISM AMID A FRAGILE RENAISSANCE

Over the past 20 years, Rockland has transformed from a distressed fishing and fish-processing town into a bustling arts-and-manufacturing hub, where the Farnsworth Art Museum, galleries and celebrated restaurants coexist with longstanding employers producing snowplows and seaweed extracts. The old adage “Camden by the sea, Rockland by the smell” is an anachronism now, but Rockland bears the tension of trying to maintain a virtuous balance between its working, commercial and industrial heritage, and the gentrifying influence of its bohemian arts-and-culture scene.

The coming of the large cruise ships – which can deposit thousands of passengers at the town landing all at once – has thrown fuel on this smoldering debate over what the city should and shouldn’t become. Where some see opportunity in attracting more ships to the city – boosting visitor spending in the fall months and introducing legions of first-time visitors to the region – others fear a fragile Rockland renaissance will be trampled under a stampede of mass tourism.

“The cruise ships just come in and dump people on the streets,” says Sally Wylie, one of the organizers of the moratorium petition. “We’ve got these wonderful high-end restaurants, really interesting food, and they’re just rushing into fast-food places to eat hot dogs. People like us moved here and bought houses to be in a real walking town, and we’ll have to move if this is what is allowed to happen.”

Boatbuilder Cabot Lyman, who opened the chic 23-room hotel 250 Main two years ago, fears big cruise ships could prove fatal for his investment. “They want to anchor these big ships right off some of these shorefront properties and you have to listen to their loudspeakers and see their exhaust,” he says. “People just don’t understand the ambience of the coast of Maine. We have something pretty special going on, and it’s the economic engine of the state.”

Others point out that Rockland receives only 20,000 cruise ship visitors a year – a tenth the level of Bar Harbor – and say there’s plenty of room for the cruise industry to grow before it would become a problem.

“It’s been fantastic for our business and our employees,” says Chris Merritt, owner of Schooner Bay Taxi. He deploys twice as many cars on cruise ship days, when many passengers hire them to take a two- or three-hour tour of the region. “But it would be nice to get them spread out over the season, and we do more business with the ships that hold 1,000 or 1,500 people. The bigger ones with 2,400 or 2,500 passengers cause some pedestrian problems up and down Main Street.”

Sierra Dietz, owner of the Grasshopper Shop on Main Street, says she sees a 40 percent to 50 percent bump in sales volume when a large cruise ship visits.

At the Rockland City Council meeting on May 7, a citizens group unfurls a printout of what it said was an online petition signed by more than 750 people calling for a 180-day moratorium on visits by large cruise ships.

“I understand the concern that we don’t want to become seasonally dependent on tourism in general, and I would support some limitations on the number of ships,” she says. “But I just don’t see Rockland ever attracting as many ships as Bar Harbor does, because we don’t have Acadia National Park next door.”

Current crowding has to be seen in perspective, says Tom Peaco, head of the regional chamber of commerce, who notes the city has only four large cruise ship calls this year. “Having a larger cruise ship in Rockland doesn’t even give a fifth as many people as a typical day at the Maine Lobster Festival, and instead of thousands of cars with chaos on the roads you have a dozen or so buses,” he notes. “I don’t think anybody is looking for cruise ships to be the center of our economy here, but we would embrace a community conversation about its role.”

OPEN PUBLIC PROCESS TO DECIDE DIRECTION

A leader of the citizens group pushing a temporary moratorium says the members want just that: a communitywide discussion on how the nascent industry should develop.

Rockland City Councilor Ed Glaser, seen at City Hall last week, is a former harbormaster who said, “While I was harbormaster, I had a big view as Rockland becoming and major maritime community.”

“We aren’t saying ‘no’ to cruise ships. We are for reason and regulation and fairness to the Rockland community,” says former mayor Louise MacLellan-Ruf, who is also a member of the city’s harbor commission and believes the small, 50- to 200-passenger boutique ships that visit Rockland regularly are good for the city. “History has shown that harbor towns that don’t regulate the industry are destroyed,” she said.

Tourism researchers who have analyzed how ports can best benefit from cruise ships say communities should consider caps on daily passenger visits, work to spread ship calls over as much of the year as possible, and encourage visits by boutique ships, which have less impact, stay longer in port and typically have bigger-spending passengers.

“There should be dialogue and cooperation between a city’s stakeholders – from local government and port authorities to hotels and residents – regarding how they want cruise ship tourism to be managed,” says researcher Zrinka Marusic of Croatia’s Institute of Tourism. “It’s actually easier to manage, compared to visitors coming by car, because you know exactly when and how many visitors are arriving at least a year in advance and can plan for it.”

Valerie Peacock, an educator and former assistant harbormaster for Bar Harbor, says cruise ship tensions on Mount Desert Island could have been avoided had there been an open public process early on to decide what the community did and didn’t want from the industry.

“Without that, there was real anxiety and people got panicked that there were secret, predetermined outcomes being developed by town officials,” she says. “There has to be a process to get the decision-making out in the light, a way for people to decide as a community what they want, so everyone, whether they personally agree with the outcome or not, knows how the decisions were made.”

Rockland City Councilor Ed Glaser, who was the harbormaster for 12 years, agrees this would be essential for his city as well. “Process is at least as important as policy, because in a city like this everybody can sit around and have a fair and even discussion and something comes out of it, I don’t care what it is,” he says. “The problem comes when a few people get up at a podium and give an emotional speech and act like they’re speaking for everybody. The feeling of conspiracy – that happens all the time on both sides.”

Dot DeGeorge walks off the dock after getting off the small American Cruise Lines ship Independence last week. The ship carrying about 100 passengers travels along the Maine coast. Rockland is divided over whether it wants to build infrastructure to attract big ships, or block them from visiting at all.

OUTSIDE GROUPS WORK WITH DESTINATIONS

Sarah Flink, director of CruiseMaine, the state-backed organization tasked with promoting Maine to the industry, says her organization is there to support Maine towns in implementing the plans they choose.

“There’s no benefit to bringing too many ships or too large ships into a community and upend a way of life that it cherishes,” Flink says. “We’ve revised our mission to help communities successfully manage cruise ship operations, and if a community does not want them, that’s entirely up to them.”

The Cruise Lines International Association declined interview requests, but said in a written statement that ship visit growth in both Rockland and Bar Harbor has been constrained by the lack of “the needed public support for infrastructure improvement,” and that the costs of getting passengers ashore “are beginning to outweigh the actual benefit of these costs to the ships and passengers in Rockland.”

When Rockland increased its per-passenger fees from $1 to $6 in 2010 to build up funds for possible waterfront improvements, Royal Caribbean Cruises wrote the city manager a stern letter demanding that the decision be reversed, calling it “myopic” and “a long-term risk” to future visits.

The city stuck to its guns. The ships are still coming.

Colin Woodard can be contacted at 791-6317 or at:

[email protected]

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