ROCKLAND, Maine — An attempt to create guidelines and increase fares for cruise ships entering Rockland Harbor has frustrated some community business leaders who voiced their complaints at a special City Council meeting Wednesday night.
The Harbor Management Commission, which presented preliminary guidelines to the council, recommended limiting the number of cruise ships to three megaships, 15 medium ships and 35 small ships annually. The commission also recommended that the city tack on a $600 fee for any cruise ship that needs to restrict public traffic by the parks or public landing.
“We’re not opposed to the cruise ship industry in Rockland,” said Melissa Maker, the chair of the Harbor Management Commission.
A draft of Rockland’s cruise ship policy states, “A policy goal is to encourage smaller cruise ships as more regular visitors to Rockland. Additionally, we wish to encourage cruise ship visits during the shoulder seasons, May and October.”
Among the concerns are that the more populated ships will have tourists overrun the parks and possibly stress local police, fire and emergency medical service resources.
The proposed limitations, however, combined with a recent council decision to hike the fee per cruise ship passenger from $1 to $6, set a tone that several business leaders expressed their concern about Wednesday night.
Frank Isganitis, who is on a slew of business boards in the area, expressed his dismay over the recent interactions between Rockland and Royal Caribbean. Rockland informed the cruise line of the fee hike from $1 to $6, and the cruise line wrote back requesting that the decision be reconsidered or the fee lowered because it would not have time to pass the cost on to passengers and would instead have to absorb the loss. Some councilors considered the tone of the request to be rude, however, and Rockland now will inform the company that the fees will remain at $6 per passenger.
“It is easy to dismiss them as a big corporation that has the means to absorb the cost — but is that reasonable?” Isganitis said at Wednesday’s meeting. “Royal Caribbean may be a big corporation, but it is part of a very small world of the industry.”
“What we do here regarding this industry tonight impacts the city and the region,” Isganitis said, mentioning that other municipalities on the midcoast are hungry for the cruise line’s business. “Our folly could end up being their opportunity.”
Shari Closter, interim executive director of the Penobscot Bay Regional Chamber of Commerce, said she felt that the efforts of business organizations to bring cruise ships to the city were not being supported by the City Council.
“I’m very concerned about the negative thought process and assertions made about the cruise ships in the community,” Closter said Wednesday.
Closter said she heard people talking about how Rockland might become the next Bar Harbor because of the ships.
“All statistics show this region is growing,” Closter said. “I can tell you, everyone is looking at Rockland.”
Closter said that she went to a symposium last week with cruise ship executives and that the city should promote itself to them. She called the ships, which carry up to 3,000 people, “an important tool for economic development.”
“I believe we can manage our own experience through the industry to what will work for us,” she said.
Captain David Gelinas, president of the Penobscot Bay and River Pilots Association, said he was worried about Rockland setting up too many regulations.
He said his concern was “how many times do people hear ‘No’ and still keep calling about Rockland? If all they get is ‘No, you’re restricted by this,’ they will go to Portland,” Gelinas said.
Gelinas pilots cruise boats into Bar Harbor and said he has been promoting Rockland as a destination for years to cruise lines.
During the meeting, the councilors seemed split about what limitations to set on the industry in the harbor.
City Councilor Brian Harden said the city had already sent one strong message to the cruise ship industry this week and was wary of sending another with more regulations. He was also concerned about limiting the business.
“I think to limit the number of ships this early may be a mistake,” Harden said.
Councilor Elizabeth Dickerson, a sailor, was leaning toward limiting the cruise ship activity in the city.
“Starting slow and working up might give us the right practice,” she said.
Harbor Master Ed Glaser said he felt the council sent mixed messages to the commission, which was asked Wednesday night to redraft the cruise ship policy with more specificity by July.
“I think it was a mixed message,” Glaser said. “I think the City Council represents the broad spectrum that is Rockland.”
Rockland expects about 33 cruise ships to visit its harbor this year.