Hoonah dock project sparks controversy

Cruise ship passengers board a tendering vessel at Huna Totem's Icy Strait Point facility. (Photo by Ed Schoenfeld/Coastalaska)

The City of Hoonah is feeling pressure from cruise lines and local Native village Corporation Huna Totem to build a multi-million dollar dock at the corporation’s popular Icy Strait Point tourist destination.

The Hoonah City Council wants the dock located on city land near Icy Strait Point, and so far has refused to give in to the companies’ demands.

The state-funded project can’t move forward until the dispute is resolved. Casey Kelly has more.

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Huna Totem Corporation approached the City of Hoonah last year with a proposal to partner on a new dock. It would serve cruise ships during the summer, and other vessels – such as barges, yachts, state ferries, and Coast Guard cutters – year round.

“With Huna Totem, the city added this project to its Capital Improvements Project list and designated it a community priority,” says Marlene Duvall, Hoonah’s City Administrator.

The project received $17-million dollars in last year’s state capital budget – a large amount for the Chichagof Island village of 750 residents, located about 40 air miles west of Juneau.

Two sites were identified in the request: One at Icy Strait Point – a former fish plant-turned-tourist-stop owned by Huna Totem – and another called Outer Point just north of the facility. The city hired PND Engineers to analyze those locations and a third site on city land just south of the old cannery.

Duvall says all the sites are within a quarter mile of each other.

“If you were to line up a cruise ship – a thousand foot cruise ship – at each one of these proposed locations, bow to stern they would essentially touch each other,” she says.

Last September, the Hoonah council unanimously chose the third site – known as Shaman Point.

About ten days before the decision, Craig Milan – senior vice president for Royal Caribbean Cruises – wrote to the city expressing concerns about the Shaman Point location. Thanks to a deal with Huna Totem, Royal Caribbean and its subsidiary Celebrity Cruises account for more than 80 percent of Hoonah’s growing number of cruise ship ports of call. The city is scheduled to get 62 cruise ship visits this summer.

In his letter, Milan said, quote: “Direct, immediate access to Icy Strait Point preserves the guest experience that we and our passengers value.” He went on to say that if the Shaman Point location resulted in increased costs to the cruise lines and their customers, Royal Caribbean and Celebrity would continue the current practice of anchoring ships offshore and tendering passengers to Icy Strait Point.

That caught the attention of Scott Ruby, director of the state Division of Community and Regional Affairs, the agency responsible for administering Hoonah’s $17-million dollar grant.

“If the cruise industry says they’re not going to use it, the majority of the operation and maintenance money for this would come through landing taxes on the cruise industry,” says Ruby. “So that indicates a problem.”

Ruby says the state also has concerns about the two sites backed by Huna Totem and the cruise lines. The PND report says one location – Outer Point – is subject to tidal and wave action that might reduce the lifespan of a dock. The site also lacks a road, and building one would put the project over budget. The other site is right at Icy Strait Point.

“The intent of this is that it’s a multi-use dock. The existing buildings that are in the upland would not really work at all for a freight dock,” Ruby says.

Last month, two legislators whose districts include Hoonah – Representative Bill Thomas and Senator Albert Kookesh – went to the community to meet with the city council about the dock project. The meeting quickly turned contentious.

“Just sounds to be me like we’re having a hammer held over our heads, that we either got to do this, or this, or we’re not going to have it. And I disagree with that,” said Councilman Chris Erickson.

“What’s the hammer?” Kookesh asked. “You think Bill and I are threatening you?”

“That’s my impression,” Erickson responded. “We’re hearing that if we don’t go for A or B that we’re not going to have it.”

Kookesh says he and Thomas did not go to the meeting to pressure the council. He says their only goal was to make sure a dock gets built in Hoonah.

“If I put any pressure on them it was to spend $17-million dollars to build a dock, so the City of Hoonah can get money from wharf-age fees,” Kookesh says. “So, I said in the meeting, ‘Why don’t you guys sit down and talk? Why don’t Huna Totem sit at this end of the table, the City of Hoonah Council right here, and cruise ships right there, and you guys decide. I don’t care where you build it.’”

Representative Thomas could not be reached for comment.

Huna Totem CEO Larry Gaffaney declined an on-tape interview, but says the corporation takes issue with PND’s site analysis and the city’s selection process.

Icy Strait Point Director Johan Dybdahl attended the same council meeting as Kookesh and Thomas, where he said Huna Totem was not allowed to comment at the site selection meeting.

“So we had no chance to say anything about this report done by PND,” Dybdahl said.

Hoonah City Administrator Duvall says the report was first made available at the meeting. By that point, the city already had received Royal Caribbean’s letter outlining concerns about Shaman Point. She says cruise line officials never requested a copy of the engineering analysis.

On February 28th, Community and Regional Affairs Director Ruby notified the city of his decision to put the grant on hold. Hoonah Mayor Seferino Villarreal responded a day later that the council’s decision was made in the best interests of the public. Duvall says the city’s position is firm.

“The city’s decision on location hasn’t wavered at all,” Duvall says. “They’re still in agreement and it’s unanimous that Shaman Point is the location for this facility.”

Ruby has not responded to the mayor’s letter.

As for Kookesh’s suggestion that the city council, Huna Totem and cruise lines sit down and figure things out, officials from the village corporation did meet with the city’s Planning and Zoning Commission last week. But the commission unanimously backed the city council. Duvall says another meeting with the council and the corporation may be scheduled, but she didn’t know when.

PND Engineers’ site analysis
Scott Ruby letter to City of Hoonah, 2-28-12
City of Hoonah response, 2-29-12

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