Battle lines are being redrawn over the controversial cruise berthing project. As campaigners close in on the number of signatures they need to trigger a public vote, supporters of the dock are revving up their own publicity engine.

Leaders of the Cruise Port Referendum Cayman Campaign say they are around halfway toward their goal of collecting the 5,288 signatures necessary to compel government to call a people’s referendum on the project.

Opposition politicians have now joined forces with the community-led campaign, and volunteers will be out again this weekend attempting to hit the required target of signatures from 25 percent of the electorate.

Meanwhile, the energy and momentum of the campaign appears to have reinvigorated supporters of the dock proposal. The group Cayman’s Port, Cayman’s Future has restarted a social media campaign in support of the project. Government is running its own advertising campaign advocating for the port.

In today’s Cayman Compass, Tourism Minister Moses Kirkconnell and Opposition Leader Ezzard Miller make their best cases for and against the dock in competing op-ed articles. But the public debate goes far beyond the political sphere.

After five years of planning, government is entering the final stages of procurement, with three bidders vying for a contract to design, build, finance, operate and maintain the piers. The time line has injected new urgency into a debate that has rumbled with varying degrees of intensity since 2013.

The Compass spoke to people involved with the community-led campaigns.

RELATED: ​Ezzard Miller: The argument against cruise piers

RELATED: Moses Kirkconnell: ​Why we need cruise berthing piers

RELATED EDITORIAL – Cruise pier: To be or not to be?

Mario Rankin, one of the key figures of the referendum campaign, said he was pleased with the progress in the three weeks since the petition began and believes campaigners are about halfway to the target.

With several petition books still out in the field and petitions now circulating among Caymanians in Miami, Bristol and London, he believes the actual figure may be significantly higher.

The effort to collect signatures will intensify this weekend. The constituency offices of George Town MLA Kenneth Bryan, on Eastern Avenue, and Bodden Town MLA Chris Saunders, in the Countryside Shopping Center, are among the sites where signatures will be collected.

“We are having huge success in terms of participation. When you sit people down and explain to them exactly what it is about, they are eager to be part of the process,” said Mr. Rankin.

He said he was personally concerned about the scale of cost overruns on previous government projects and does not believe that government has made a strong enough case to justify the dock. But, he said, the petition was also for people who supported the dock or who had not made up their mind.

“If government can prove their plan is the best thing for the country, they shouldn’t have any issue taking it to a referendum. They should be confident of the people’s support,” he said.

“What we are trying to accomplish is for them to put all the information out there and let everyone have a say.”

Chris Kirkconnell, vice president of Kirk Freeport and part of the Cayman’s Port, Cayman’s Future group, which supports and advocates for the dock, said the group had been re-energized by the referendum campaign. He said he does not believe a public vote is necessary and suggested the campaign was a largely politically motivated effort to stall the port project further and push it into the next election cycle.

“I think there are some people that care deeply about the environment and are very interested in a democratic right,” he said, “but for some it seems it is part of a last attempt to stall the project rather than something that could turn the project down.”

He said the pro-port advocacy group, which was active in the initial stages of the debate following the 2015 environmental impact assessment, had re-established itself in response to the momentum generated by the referendum campaign.

“I think both sides have re-engaged with the discussion,” he said.

“There has been a lull where government hasn’t been out there with new information. I don’t think as much has changed as the opposition makes it seem.”

He acknowledged his business was among those with the most to gain from increased cruise tourism, but said that was true also for many smaller businesses, including taxis and water sports operators.

He said he and other members of Cayman’s Port, Cayman’s Future felt it was necessary to put other information in the public domain to counter what was being promoted by those who oppose the dock or support a referendum.

Others pushing for a referendum say there are still too many unanswered questions about the piers and their broader impact on Cayman.

Gabriella Hernandez, of Save Cayman, said the data currently in the public domain does not show that the presumed economic benefits outweigh the environmental and economic risks.

She highlighted concerns around the impact of increased cruise tourism on key attractions among a number of unanswered questions.

She said the issue was more complex than some believe and rather than simply saying the dock is a bad idea, Save Cayman is asking for evidence that this particular proposal is good for Cayman.

“While some may like the simplicity of a pro and anti argument, a project of this scale that will have wide ranging socioeconomic and environmental impacts cannot be painted black and white,” she said. “From the beginning, members of the public have raised various, valid concerns which deserve addressing.”

Examples include questions over the supporting infrastructure, capacity concerns on Cayman’s primary attractions, pollution, overcrowding, and the impact on stay-over tourism, she said.

“Again, we are asking that the public be given the proper data so that we are all aware of the costs,” Ms. Hernandez added.

Shawn Ebanks, of K-Man Sunsplash Watersports, which runs Stingray City Tours, said he thought that those who supported the port needed to do more to make their voices heard. He said the port was vital for tour operators like him.

“Every single bill that I have depends on cruise ship tourism,” he said. “There are thousands of people like me wondering what is going to happen if we don’t get it – the environment can’t come before human interests every time. I depend on the environment; I don’t want to destroy it, but we still need to be able to move with the changing times.”

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