Port authority reaches out to coalition of cruise ships

Great Lakes group’s director would ‘love’ to visit Toledo


The Toledo area could soon be reconnecting with the Great Lakes cruise industry.

Stephen Burnett, executive director of the Great Lakes Cruising Coalition in Kingston, Ont., said Friday he will “absolutely” come to Toledo and update officials about cruising’s potential and how Toledo could prosper from it.

Mr. Burnett was invited earlier in the day to make a presentation within the next 30 to 45 days to officials of the port authority, Destination Toledo Inc. (Toledo’s convention and visitors bureau), the city of Toledo, Lucas County, and the state of Ohio.

The invitation was sent by email shortly before noon by Paul Toth, Toledo-Lucas County Port Authority president and chief executive officer.

Mr. Burnett, who was driving to upstate New York to visit relatives for the weekend early Friday, told a reporter from The Blade via cell phone that he was unaware of the invitation but would accept.

“Talking to the stakeholders through the media is not a good idea,” Mr. Burnett said, explaining that he planned to respond to Mr. Toth via email over the weekend once he got to his destination.

But he said he’d definitely make a return visit to Toledo, which he visited several years ago when the port authority belonged to the cruising coalition.

“Actually, I’d love to come to Toledo,” he said.

Toledo wouldn’t necessarily have to be a member of the Great Lakes Cruising Coalition to market itself as a port of call for the cruise industry. But the coalition exists to help its member communities become more attractive to cruise lines when they select ports of call.

According to Mr. Toth’s invitation, the Toledo-Lucas County Port Authority was one of the coalition’s founding members when it was established in 1999. Mr. Toth said the port authority discontinued its membership in 2008, when the nation’s economy went into its worst recession since the Great Depression. The port authority spent more than $40,000 in dues and other types of financial support on the coalition over nine years with little to show for it, according to Mr. Toth.

The coalition charges $3,700 to $7,000 in annual fees.

The port authority came under additional pressure to cut corners between 2007 to 2013, when revenues declined more than $3.7 million annually, Mr. Toth wrote. That has reduced the port authority's budget by 35 percent, which caused 25 staff positions to be eliminated — including 13 in airport operations this year, he said.

Despite all that, Mr. Toth said the port authority does “have an interest in learning more about the apparent surge of interest in Great Lakes cruising.”

Jerry Chabler, port authority member, said the port authority administration was motivated by a Blade article that appeared on the newspaper’s front page Sept. 29.

The article showed how the port authority had given up on pursuing Great Lakes cruising, dropping out of the coalition five years earlier and choosing to not commit any of its $283,000 marketing budget to the cruise industry.

Meanwhile, as many as five new cruises are being planned for the Great Lakes region in 2014, all bypassing Toledo.

Mr. Chabler said he spent more than two hours in Mr. Toth’s office after the article appeared, speaking to him about the missed opportunity. The issue is expected to be discussed by the full port board at a future meeting, Mr. Chabler said.

No mention of it was made when the port authority’s board of directors met Thursday for a 70-minute breakfast forum at the Pinnacle banquet hall in Maumee.

Joe Cappel, Toledo-Lucas County Port Authority director of cargo development, has said the agency’s focus has been almost exclusively on cargo shipments in recent years because the cruise industry lost the foothold it had in the Great Lakes region years ago.

Thomas Winston, port authority vice president of administration and chief financial officer, has said that $102,000 of the agency’s $283,000 advertising, promotions, and marketing budget is dedicated to Toledo Express Airport. The airport is struggling to maintain passenger service. Some $75,000 more is budgeted for general marketing and communications projects, while $69,000 and $37,000 are dedicated to development and seaport activities, respectively.

Toledo's two mayoral candidates — incumbent Mike Bell and Councilman D. Michael Collins — each supports the general concept of marketing Toledo to the cruise industry.

Both have said they believe the Maumee River waterfront near downtown will play a key role if the city is to ever achieve the economy prosperity some envision.

Contact Tom Henry at: thenry@theblade.com or 419-724-6079.