Port's ship comes in

SAINT JOHN - The port of Saint John will soon be getting a $42-million facelift that will help it better manage the rapid growth of its cruise ship industry.

                                  

Cruise ships make an impressive sight on Saint John's waterfront. The Telegraph-Journal has learned that the federal and provincial governments have committed to helping fund a $42-million expansion of the port's facilities.

The Telegraph-Journal has learned the federal and provincial governments have both committed to joining the Saint John Port Authority in funding a major expansion of the port's facilities that will allow it to accommodate more visits and bigger ships. Each of the three parties will be responsible for a one-third share of the funding.

The project was the No. 1 item on the port's wish list and the decision to fund the improvements follows on the heels of Ottawa's $24-million commitment for Quebec cruise ship infrastructure in its most recent budget.

"We have not had official confirmation of that," port authority chairman Stephen Campbell said Wednesday. "But we are hearing some of the same things and, if it's true, we are ecstatic."

The cruise ship industry represents approximately 20 per cent of the port's annual revenue, second only to potash, which accounts for slightly more than 40 per cent. Both of those revenue streams will benefit from the improved infrastructure.

The port's proposal calls for the extension of the Pugsley C berth near the site of the former Lantic Sugar refinery, adjacent to the new, as-yet-unnamed cruise ship terminal. A new wharf would be constructed and more than 400 metres would be added to the existing 235-metre berth, allowing the port greater flexibility to host multiple ships on the same day.

PotashCorp, which has shipping and storage facilities on the opposite side of the Lantic Sugar site, is also likely to expand its operations at the Saint John port after it opens a new $1.7-billion mine near Sussex in 2012.

Saint John is the fourth-busiest port in Canada for cruise ship passengers, behind only Vancouver, Victoria and Halifax. In 2008, the Port City welcomed a record 183,462 passengers - a jump of more than 49,000 over the previous year. Port officials are confident that traffic will reach 200,000 passengers in 2010 and surge past the 300,000 mark by 2015.

Campbell noted at the port's annual meeting on Monday that cruise lines are building bigger ships with greater capacity. Industry figures show that more than a dozen ships currently being built will be greater than 300 metres in length, including Royal Caribbean's Oasis of the Seas, a 360-metre vessel that has a capacity of 5,400 passengers. It is expected to come into service this year.

This year, for example, the port won't be able to accommodate the Queen Mary 2 - the world's largest ocean liner - because it doesn't have enough capacity on the day the ship had been scheduled to come to the city.

Campbell also told the meeting the port has invested $20 million of its own money in infrastructure improvements in recent years, including about half that amount on the new cruise ship terminal. The port will also benefit from the construction of Irving Oil's proposed new headquarters at the Long Wharf site.

The $30-million facility will include a secondary cruise ship passenger terminal.

Campbell said Monday that he was optimistic the federal government would look favourably on the port's funding request, especially since Ottawa and the Quebec provincial government had spent more than $150 million on cruise ship infrastructure in the St. Lawrence Seaway region, which handles about half as many passengers as Saint John.

"We're not critical of that," he said. "We just would like to put our hand up as well and ask that other levels of government notice the success that Saint John has grown on its own."

The cruise ship industry generates spinoff benefits throughout the region as tourists take day trips to places such as the Hopewell Rocks, St. Martins, St. Andrews and St. Stephen.

"All communities surrounding Saint John will benefit from this," said St. Martins Mayor Jim Huttges. "A big percentage of cruise ship passengers visit our area and that's great news for us and for all the communities in our region."

Published Thursday April 30th, 2009 - Telegraph Journal