Skagway officials seek outside help with port planning

Cruise ships and passengers at Skagway’s railroad dock on May 23, 2016. (Photo by Emily Files/KHNS)
Cruise ships and passengers at Skagway’s railroad dock on May 23, 2016. (Photo by Emily Files/KHNS)

Skagway officials have decided it’s time to get outside help in setting a course for the town’s port.

The borough assembly last week voted to put out a request for proposals for a port consultant. The assembly will also meet behind closed doors this week to discuss strategies regarding White Pass and Yukon Route Railroad, which currently controls much of the waterfront.

As Assembly member Spencer Morgan put it, the borough’s progress towards renovating its port has been “stagnant.” He said the stalemate threatens Skagway’s place in the cruise ship tourism market.

“I mean we have to evolve, or we will be left behind.”

Since a public vote last fall shot down a lease extension between the municipality and White Pass, officials have had many discussions about what to do next, with minimal results.“Having somebody from the outside that has no skin in the game whatsoever, no history, and that can just come in and look at it with a new set of eyes, I think would be a welcome approach,” said Tim Bourcy, chair of the port commission. The commission recommended hiring a port consultant.

Since the lease was rejected by voters 10 months ago, crucial goals like cleaning up contamination in the port and building a floating dock to accommodate larger cruise ships have stalled.

The consultant would work with port stakeholders to draw up recommendations for achieving the short-term and long-term goals of the Port of Skagway.

But Assemblywoman Angela Grieser asked why the borough would hire a consultant now, when they still haven’t worked out a solution with White Pass.

“I think we need to spend our energy on re-engaging with White Pass and getting this solved, not finding a planner and spending money on speculative stuff that nobody knows,” she said.

“We need to do it all together,” replied Assemblyman Tim Cochran. “We need to be hooking up with White Pass, we need to talk to AIDEA, we need to have a bunch of irons in the fire.”

The assembly will continue with another iron in the fire Wednesday. They will meet in executive session to talk with borough attorney Bob Blasco about potential strategies related to White Pass.

In the meantime, the borough will solicit port consultant contracts. The assembly approved that decision 5-1, with Grieser opposed.

Port development wasn’t the only major project on Thursday’s agenda. The assembly also talked about the $1.5 million water well and tank projects on the horizon. Manager Scott Hahn asked for direction about how pay off the low-interest loans that will fund the project. Hahn said, current water rates are not going to cut it. Relying on user fees to make payments would mean a 20 percent rate increase. But, there’s an alternative: cruise ship head tax money.

“For a town of 1,000 people, we have everything we need for 1,000 people and keeping them going, but when the cruise ships show up, the tank drops to below 40 percent,” Hahn said. “I mean, it gets really dangerously low.”

He said using cruise passenger funds may be a viable route, since the demand for the new water infrastructure comes completely from the ships. The assembly voted 5-1 to use passenger taxes to pay for the project. Steve Burnham Jr. was opposed.

Finally, the assembly considered a proposed senior center and housing facility. The project is estimated to cost about $6 million. The assembly gave the go-ahead for the Skagway Development Corporation to apply for grants that would partially fund the facility. But the assembly decided to hold off on soliciting engineering offers.

“I’m a little hesitant to go forward with any engineering on it until we have a really good idea of how we’re going to pay for this,” said Morgan.

The matter of how to fund the senior center will go to the finance committee.

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