Opening of new terminal at Port of Houston not yet creating jobs promised

Taxpayers were promised economic growth once the Port of Houston's new terminal finally opened. It has, so we went checking
November 11, 2013 8:24:44 PM PST
Five years after the Port of Houston's cruise terminal first opened, paying customers are finally cruising from Houston on a regular schedule. Passengers on the first cruise were excited to be sailing so close to home.

"It's going to out Houston on the map for cruising," travel agent and cruise passenger Matthew Battles said.

Since the building opened in 2008 at a cost of $108 million public dollars, only cargo ships and a few Hurricane Ike relocated cruises have used the building. The Port claims to have broken even, but Port leaders promised hundreds of jobs and millions in returned investment.

Battles knew of the issues and told us, "It was a good decision to build it. The fact that it sat here for a while, I guess they had to work out some issues."

The port gave Princess Cruises $685,000 of your money just to show up. That's $25,370 per cruise. Next year, Princess will get $80,000 per cruise ? a 214% increase. That kind of incentive is unheard of in the cruise industry according to Eyewitness News calls to US ports and interviews with port industry insiders.

Norwegian Cruise Line got an even sweeter incentive deal; they'll be here next year.

Newly appointed Port Commissioner, Roy D Mease told us, "I don't think it's been the type of investment they hoped it to be to start with."

Mease is part of a new group of commissioners swept in to oversee changes at the Port of Houston.

"Give us the opportunity to see if it's going to work. There's nothing we can do now. It's here," he said.

And there are signs of life. Nearby hotel manager, Daisy Dees told us, "We're very excited. We've been anticipating this for a long time." Dees runs the Comfort Suites close to the cruise terminal. It opened four years ago to capture cruise business that never came.

"We've managed to make it work," she said.

For the first cruise she booked 40 extra rooms; there are more bookings later in the year. She's added two maids and a full time shuttle driver.

The union that represents dock workers says each cruise is likely to hire 57 union members. And the port points to all these cruise line employees, taxi drivers, truck drivers and porters as proof your investment is paying off, even though most of them will work at most two days a week.

Ricky Kunz with the Port of Houston defended the deal saying, "This place is not about the port making money for the port. It's about the community making money, about creating jobs and economic benefit."

In July 2013 when the Port was pushing through the increased incentive deal, an economic report promised 736 jobs over three years (See the document in the slide show). By this month when the cruise ship sailed, a Port press release dropped it to "more than 200." When asked, the Port didn't explain the difference.

We checked with economic development officials in Pasadena, Seabrook and LaPorte ? the three cities closest to the new terminal. In the year since these cruise deals were announced, not a single business application has been filed in any of those cities. They're not giving up, they're just still waiting.

It is a good change that cruises are sailing from Houston and money is coming in. The Port says cruise bookings have increased for the first three cruises. Commissioner Mease wants to make sure the reality matches the predictions, telling us, "I don't think we can wait a year or two to evaluate it. We need to do it right away."

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