Corpus Christi Caller Times

"Port Looks to Cruise into the Future"

Conference center, terminal planned to attract lines

When architects David and Elizabeth Richter designed the plans for the Port of Corpus Christi's cruise and conference center, they wanted a look that brought energy to the port. So they put in sharp angles, bold-colored tiles and open vistas of the port. They honed the bright colors of Mexican heritage, capitalized on the airy interior of the 1920s-era industrial warehouse they will convert and married it to the versatility of the state-of-the-art in convention centers.

There's more than energy to the dynamics of that design. Some see the cruise terminal as a trigger for a diversified port and a revitalization of downtown. Port representatives, flanked by officials from Mexican ports and the San Antonio visitors bureau, will try to pass that energy along to cruise lines this week at an industry conference in Miami. They hope to show the cruise lines they have wooed for the past four years at Seatrade Cruise Shipping Convention a plan that will put them leagues ahead of other ports. "You really have to put your money where your mouth is," said Jake Jacobi, deputy director of the port. "That's what we're doing here but, we think, in a smart way. Even if we have minimal cruise activity, we'll be able to support this project."

The cruise terminal conference center will cost $5.8 million. The port will cover $4.3 million of the cost. The project received a $1.5 million economic development grant from the U.S. Department of Commerce last April. The port is budgeted to spend $3.8 million this year.

The project is the first part of a waterfront development project that will include an arts and crafts area, sporting area and an IMAX theater. Still, plenty must be done before construction begins in June. The port will soon hire a company to market and coordinate the terminal's conference business. The port will also hire a company to run the restaurant in the coming months. When the type of restaurant is determined, that decision will dictate how the space will be designed.

The port will also open the project for bids. The site preparation and plaza renovations are expected to cost $1.52 million, the terminal building $3.12 million and the conference center $1.17 million. The port would recoup its cost within two years, said Paul Lambert, president of Lambert Rogatinsky, a Milford, Conn.-based real estate advisor. By the third year it would clear a profit, he said.

Terminal design

The most common use of the building would be as a conference center. But port fees for each ship landing would add big profit with little cost to the port. For example, a $5 port charge per person, almost always included in the price of a cruise vacation, would net $5,000 for a 1,000-passenger boat. The port's cost would be for docking the ship, security and capital costs of the building.

The architects looked for flexibility when designing the interior of the cruise terminal. Even if the building is used heavily by cruise liners, cruise traffic would pass through the terminal only twice a week.

A place for people

"Cruise terminals are idle most of the time," Jacobi said. "You ever go to the Miami cruise terminal during the week, and there's nobody there? We want this to be a place for people for every day." The area is intended to be a complement to the traffic already circulating at nearby attractions. Oak-shaded pavilions would welcome pedestrian visitors into the new area, and changes to the medians would be designed with the idea of increasing traffic flow to the area.

"The uniqueness of this design is its setting," Elizabeth Richter said. "It is in an urban area. You go to other ports, and they're in an industrial area and you have to take a cab or a shuttle."

Well-known views

A glass wall would extend across the side of the building closest to the ship channel, giving visitors a living mural of the port. Spectators could watch ships come through the harbor with a backdrop of the Harbor Bridge. The trick of a project like this is that 90 percent of what you're going to see when we're done, you can go over there and see right now," David Richter said. "Of that, 90 percent of that is going to look different because of the context, the way it's put together."

More conference space

"If the conference center/cruise terminal is a success, it will spur an increase in the conference business to the city," Lambert said. The firm completed a comprehensive economic study of the effects of a cruise terminal. As a conference center, it would give the area more room to spread out the 900 events the city hosts each year. "The average person attending a convention spends $145 a day," said Char Beltran, vice president of the Greater Corpus Christi Business Alliance.

Lack of space

Beltran said the city has lost more than $80 million in convention dollars the past four years because of the lack of space for large trade shows. Those dollars would have circulated 2 times in the local economy, she said. While the port's project will not give the city that kind of exhibit space, the new conference center will take some of the crowding away from Bayfront Plaza Convention Center.

A non-hotel setting

"What's different about this conference center is that it adds in-house catering in a non-hotel setting," Lambert said. "No one has served that market to that extent," he said. "The cruise terminal could also give the downtown a boost," Lambert said. "In the short term, the construction would bring jobs, and for the long term, about 100 jobs will be added in an economically distressed part of town," he said. "In the longer term," Lambert said, "he believes the port's success will attract retailers and more growth to the downtown area." Port officials will take the plans for the conference center when they attend the Seatrade convention this week.

Competing at Seatrade

At Seatrade, the port of Corpus Christi will vie against more than 100 ports around the world for cruise business. The port will reveal its most ambitious bid to date as it joins forces with San Antonio to help market the area as a regional tourist destination. Port officials have added potential itineraries from Mexican ports in the states of Yucatan, Veracruz and Quintana Roo. This time they can offer the promise of a cruise terminal.