Cruise port meeting: Officials questioned over pier project

Deputy Premier and Tourism Minister Moses Kirkconnell addresses an audience of more than 500 people who attended Wednesday night's meeting about the proposed port and cruise ship berthing project at the Family Life Centre in George Town. - Photo: James Whittaker

A panel of government officials fielded dozens of questions over the controversial cruise berthing project Wednesday night but were unable to give specific information about the cost of the piers, the funding formula and the identities of the bidders.

Around 500 people packed in the Family Life Centre in George Town to hear information on the project and pose questions to government and cruise line officials in a public meeting that ran well past midnight.

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Though the front rows were filled with people in pro-port T-shirts, the vast majority of those who peppered the panel with questions appeared to have concerns about the project or to oppose it outright.

Many of the questions, including information about funding and measures to prevent environmental impacts spilling over to neighboring dive sites like Eden Rock and Soto’s Reef, were left unanswered, with officials saying those details were still to be determined in the final stages of the bid process.

Tourism Minister Moses Kirkconnell said that information would be presented to the public once the preferred bidder has been selected. He said that PwC would be tasked with finalizing its business case at that stage to determine if the bids on the table represented value for money for the country. Speaking to the Cayman Compass after the meeting, he said that information would be presented to the public and Cabinet would make a final decision on whether to proceed at that point.

A panel of officials, including Mr. Kirkconnell, representatives from Royal Caribbean and Carnival Cruise Lines, Acting Port Authority Director Joseph Woods, Cayman Turtle Centre Managing Director Tim Adam, and Max Jones and Peter Ranger from the Public Works Department gave presentations and fielded questions through the night.

Concerns from the audience ranged from the potential impact of increased cruise tourism on the island’s main attractions to the direct environmental impact and the financial cost of the project.

Costs, funding formula remain unclear

Tourism Minister Moses Kirkconnell said the likely cost of the piers was estimated at around $200 million but he said he could not give an exact figure as this was part of the ongoing negotiation process with the final bidders. He said it was a competitive bid process and it would be up to the bidders to show how they would finance it and what the costs would be.

Johann Moxam, one of the advocates for a referendum on the piers, said he was concerned about the potential for “crazy costs” that would eventually result in direct taxation on Cayman’s people. He questioned if there was a ceiling price where government would pull the plug on the project. Mr. Kirkconnell said Cabinet would make its decision once the bids were in and insisted government would not “compromise the integrity of the Cayman Islands budget.”

Identity of bidders will not be revealed

Several people expressed concern about the reported involvement of the China Harbour Engineering Group in the bidding process. But officials would not entertain questions about the identity of the bidders, saying to do so would compromise the process and break their own rules.

Mr. Jones said it was against government’s procurement protocols to reveal that information before a bid process was complete. Stran Bodden, chief officer in the Ministry of Tourism, said, “We have to protect the integrity of the bid process – the bidders that have come forward have entrusted their confidence to us.”

Concern over ‘precious’ dive sites

Underwater photographer Courtney Platt was among several residents to raise concerns about the impact of construction and sediment from the use of the docks on nearby reefs. He said he was extremely concerned about the impact of the piers on important dive sites like Soto’s Reef, Devil’s Grotto at Eden Rock and the wreck of the Cali. He said those sites attracted thousands of tourists every year and were worth $9 million annually to businesses, as well as being precious to the people of Grand Cayman.

Mr. Ranger said the solutions would come from the contractors as part of the bid process. He said they would be required to prevent damage spilling outside the footprint of the site, but the details of how they achieved that would be up to them to demonstrate. He said the process would be monitored by environmental consultants throughout.

Mr. Ranger added, “There will be no damage to Seven Mile Beach and part of the dredge management plan will be to make sure there is no impact on Eden Rock, as well.”

Mr. Platt appeared skeptical, questioning whether anyone ever succeeded in preventing the death of coral within 100 feet of a dredged port.

Questions over how many tourists Cayman can accommodate

One of the key concerns among the audience was the potential impact of thousands of new cruise passengers on the island’s infrastructure.

Cathy Church, who runs an underwater photography business at Sunset House, was among those to query where all the new arrivals would go.

“Cayman is a small country. We don’t have Mayan ruins or waterfalls; we have Stingray City and the beach, and they are already overcrowded,” she said.

Mr. Kirkconnell suggested the Port Authority would be able to manage the flow of visitors so cruise arrivals were spread throughout the week and visitors were spread more evenly throughout the island.

Tim Adam, of the Cayman Islands Turtle Centre, also gave a presentation, suggesting the attraction would be one of the key beneficiaries of cruise berthing. He said the center, along with other underused sites like Pedro St. James and the Botanic Park, could accommodate additional visitors.

Mr. Ranger said the new port would not necessarily mean more visitors on a day-to-day basis. Though the business case indicates as many as 2.3 million passengers could arrive in Cayman annually if a cruise berthing facility is built, compared with just over 1.8 million last year, he said.

“It is not about getting more and more passengers,” Mr. Ranger said. “The piers are really to deal with bigger ships, not necessarily put more and more passengers through. We had 24,000 passengers [on the busiest day] last year and the island didn’t collapse, not that I read in the press.”

Start date for project still a year away

Mr. Ranger also gave details on the time line for the procurement process. He said the selection of the preferred bidder was not the end of the process. He said there would be another year of going through final contract negotiations, coral relocation, and a final design and permitting process before work would begin.

Other concerns

Questions were also raised about government’s claim that the project would create 900 new jobs. Mr. Kirkconnell was asked to produce a list of the jobs and the likely salaries. He said the project would mean construction jobs, more jobs at the Port Authority and entrepreneurial opportunities but did not have a full list available and would provide it at a later date.

Asked why other sites were not being considered, he said an initial review had shown that George Town harbor would require the least amount of dredging. He said the government was now five years into the process with that site and it was not feasible to consider changing at this stage.

Asked his views on a referendum, he said government does not support that initiative and believes it has a mandate to proceed with cruise berthing from the last election. But he said it would have to respect the process and comply with the constitution if enough votes were raised to trigger a public vote.

“If a referendum takes place and the referendum results are that people don’t want cruise berthing, that is binding and the government could not go forward,” he said.