Beaufort’s ‘crown jewel’ waterfront faces an uncertain future. Businesses watching closely

Trouble lies beneath the waterline at Beaufort’s breathtaking Waterfront Park between the Beaufort River and Bay Street, the city’s downtown hub. The park is visited by nearly a half million people a year and a key contributor to the area’s annual $140 million tourism economy.

Severe deterioration of several of the hundreds of concrete piles that support the floating park and the seawall fronting the river have been identified in a recent inspection by engineers, and silt build-up has become so severe under those structures that even inspections are difficult to check their condition.

Whether the support structures can be repaired or need to be entirely replaced are questions now facing the city, along with the hefty cost. The city already already says it won’t allow any more American Cruise Line tour ships to dock at the seawall because of the pressure it could place on the seawall and the danger of a catastrophic failure.

City Manager Scott Marshall on Thursday said he could not say how much the repairs or replacement will cost, saying “it’s way to early to even predict that,” but there’s no question, he added, that “It’s going to be expensive.”

“I would hope that a project of this size and scope and attention would garner some federal as well as state dollars,” Marshall said. “That’s our hope. But how much we need, we don’t know yet.”

In the meantime, downtown businesses that rely on tourism revenue from the cruise ship visits and annual visits to Waterfront Park and Beaufort in general are watching the developments closely.

Robb Wells, the president and CEO of Visit Beaufort, Port Royal, and Sea Islands, which markets northern Beaufort County, said American Cruise Lines averages 24 to 36 stops in Beaufort during the peak tourism seasons in the spring and fall.

The small cruise ships typically have 40 to 80 people on board who come ashore for a visit, taking tours and shopping downtown. Some businesses benefit more than others from this type of tourism, Wells says. Cruise ship stops account for a small but important form of tourism that touches multiple aspects of the visitor economy including retail, food and specialty businesses, Wells said.

On a broader scale, business owners are wondering about the scale of infrastructure repairs that will be needed at the park because it’s such an important tourism draw and a local favorite. Tourism has a $140 million economic impact on the Beaufort and Port Royal area and Waterfront Park, with more than 400,000 visits a year, ranks in the top three top visiting spots in the region making it vital to “who we are,” says Wells.

“What happens if the waterfront becomes unusable for awhile?” Wells said. “It’s a concern for sure.”

The numbers behind tourism dollars

Scott Lee, who owns the Beaufort Candy Shop, Barefoot Bubba’s, Carolina Me Crazy and Low Country Cider and Superior Coffee, says on days a cruise ship docks in Beaufort his businesses collectively see a $2,000 to $3,000 increase in revenue. While not every type of business benefits from cruise ship traffic, many do benefit from purchases of “touristy-type stuff” such as clothing and even paintings from art galleries.

“It’s a fairly sizable loss in daily revenue for the restaurants and businesses downtown,” Lee said.

But another loss that can’t necessarily be measured is the exposure the cruise ships bring to the city, he adds. Once those visitors see the city, says Lee, they may want to return for vacation, creating a trickle-down effect.

Not everybody is fully aware “this is a major issue,” Lee says of the seriousness of the challenges facing the waterfront infrastructure.

“That waterfront is one of the focal points of all of Beaufort,” Lee said. “We need that to stay in operation. Even though there has to be construction to strengthen and fix it up it still needs to be in operation while that occurs and accessible.”

Tourists typically start their day by visiting the waterfront, where they watch boats go by while sitting in the swings. “Their love for Beaufort starts with downtown waterfront park,” Lee said.

Cruise ships are no longer permitted to tie up

The report made it clear, Marshall said, that the city should not allow cruise ships on the waterfront. The inspection by McSweeney Engineers involved eastern waterfront structures consisting of a the 1,200-foot-long concrete seawall and relieving platform. The relieving platform is in front of (and connected to) the seawall. The relieving platform is supported by 570 concrete piles.

The engineering report recommended restricting commercial vessels until a structural and mooring analysis indicates otherwise, installing auxiliary mooring structures, initiating preliminary studies and securing funding for replacement of the structure and installing jackets on deteriorated piles. Those jackets already have been installed around several of the piles that are in tough shape.

Marshall said he notified American Cruise Lines, the cruise ship company that regularly docks at the park’s seawall, before the McSweeney Engineers report was released so the company was not caught by surprise.

The city is looking at options

The city plans to arrange a meeting with the cruise ship operator to discuss options going forward. Beaufort is a popular docking location for the company’s customers, Marshall said. In the short-term, if the city takes steps to accommodate stops in the future it will, he said. That could include looking at building a structure or mitigating apparatus so cruise ships can tie up in Beaufort without undue strain on the sea wall. But if American Cruise Lines wants to continue to stop in the city, it would have to pay those costs, Marshall said.

The seawall and relieving platform has a 70-year lifespan and the city was going to have to replace it sooner or later, Marshall noted. It’s 50 years old now. Its replacement was not anticipated by any previous administrations, Marshall noted. The latest report on its condition has accelerated the need for the action, Marshall said.

Marshall has been in contact with the Charleston district of the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers and the Ocean and Coastal Resource Management arm of the state Department of Health and Environmental Control.

Mayor Phil Cromer said he was “shocked” by the results of the engineering report, which showed that deterioration and shoaling had markedly increased from an inspection a few years ago. Now the city must work on figuring out how to proceed.

“Hopefully we can do it without having to tear the park up and replace it,” Cromer said. “That’s what we’re looking for is, is there another way to do that without that disruption. But if we have to, we have to. But we don’t know until we explore it.”

The city, he says, must figure out a permanent solution.

“It’s like our heart and soul,” Cromer said of Waterfront Park. “It’s our crown jewel.”