Issue 65: Public Harbor

By: Ed Glaser

This is just a short discussion about the bigger picture arguments about where we would like to see Rockland harbor in the next 10 to 20 years. I think most of us will agree to the same vision – a healthy harbor. Healthy environmentally, economically and socially. A place where people can come and make a living, as well as a place with plenty of opportunities for public access. But there are plenty of smaller issues hidden inside that vision that stir folks’ emotions and therefore create controversy.

This is just a small perspective on a tiny part of that larger issue.

I’ve heard a number of people weigh in on the right way for Rockland to deal with cruise ships. I’ll try not to argue one way or the other, and certainly hope to avoid a moral judgment on the worth or the value of welcoming them – or banning them.

I’m just amused by the way that we frame the argument. Sometimes one person will make an observation and everyone else will just jump on board and agree, often without a critical eye. So often the H.L. Menckin quote comes to mind, “There is always a well-known solution to every human problem — neat, plausible, and wrong.“

So appears to be the case with some of the recent discussion about cruise ships in Rockland. There’s a new mantra floating around that we want cruise ships, just not the large ones. Maybe the ones that have less than 250 guests suit the town more than some of the larger mid-sizes ones of around 2,500 passengers.

The argument goes something like this – the larger vessels have more amenities for the onboard guests, the cruises themselves are sold at a discount rate, and when they come ashore, they spend less money than the passengers from the smaller ships. We’ve worked very hard to improve Rockland, and with our art galleries, fine dining and exquisite hotels, we are branding the city as a bit of an upscale experience. If too many people come to town all at once, and they don’t spend money, it doesn’t really help our economy. I’ve heard this argument from many folks, it is becoming a bit of an easy dividing line about what we want and what we don’t want. It coincides with a series of articles recently in the Portland newspaper. The rosy estimate of passenger spending was based on false assumptions.

What?, what am I missing? Since when do we means test our tourists? Is there any other group of visitors wherein we ask how much they will spend before they are welcomed to town? I go downtown and rarely buy anything other than a Narraganset or a PBR. Does that mean that I shouldn’t be allowed to go down Main Street? Who decides what is the level of spending that makes for the “right kind of tourist,” for Rockland? I’m aghast at the implications. I’m starting to refer to it as the “gentrification of tourism.” We know that as a town is cleaned up, it tends to move up an economic ladder that might be called gentrification, and that often goes hand-in-hand with increasing tourism. But never before have I heard it said that we only want tourists that are known to spend above a certain level. Many stores and restaurants are more than pleased with the amount that is spent.

We are now pitting one kind of tourist against another. Since when did we decide that we only want tourists from Cos Cob, and not Topeka? It’s okay to improve a town and attract a kind of tourist that fits the image we have of the town. We improve the downtown, the parks, the lights, the amenities so that people will want to come here. The added benefit is that all of us who live here can enjoy those improved amenities. But to arbitrarily say to one group of tourists that they can’t come here because they don’t spend enough is outrageous. Oh, and probably illegal.

Since these passengers are coming by ship, they are coming across state lines, and the Federal government has the constitutional authority to enforce rules on interstate commerce and travel. It becomes a public access issue. I don’t believe that states and towns have the authority to interfere with that public access, unless there is a good reason, and how much potential there is for tourist dollars isn’t a good reason. We can argue that the overcrowding of downtown when a larger ship comes to town is a good reason, but it is hard to justify a number of no more than 250 passengers a day when we gladly welcome 8,000 people a day during the Blues Festival or 10,000 people during the Lobster Festival. Maybe we just need to invest in better “crowd control,”
when a ship is in port?

We need to discuss issues like these without jumping on a bandwagon of bad answers. There are plenty of reasons to be wary of the cruse ship industry. I’m especially concerned about their spotty record of environmental stewardship and how we can ensure that our harbor stays clean, and gets healthier for our next generations – but how much a passenger spends is a poor reason to limit them. In fact, the city collects fees based on the number of passengers that come ashore, so the larger ships pay lots more than the smaller ones. That money can be used for needed waterfront improvements. Not just for guests, but for the people that live here the other 364 days a year.

Rockland isn’t a sleepy little New England village, so we need to find a way for our industries to coexist with our residents. We will need to re-define what is a working waterfront, and protect it – but it isn’t going to be just beaches and expensive houses. Let’s go back and look at the issues before us and skip the easy answers, and figure out how we keep improving Rockland for everyone.

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