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State extends $6.5 million Skagway port grant for second time

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)

The Skagway Borough has an extra year to spend $6.5 million for city dock improvements. The state legislative grant was set to expire in about six months. At a meeting Thursday, the borough assembly voted to ask for a one-year extension. The state approved the request Friday afternoon.

Skagway received a $10 million state legislative grant in 2011. The borough worked toward what was dubbed the ‘Gateway Project,’ a plan to, among other things, clean up contamination in the ore basin and install a new cruise ship dock.

But to execute that work, the borough needed access to areas currently controlled by White Pass and Yukon Route Railroad. So, the two parties negotiated a 35-year lease extension.

But the plan was thrown into limbo when the residents of Skagway defied the lease in a public vote. That was in October of 2015. A few months later, the assembly applied for a one-year extension on the dock improvements grant to buy more time and figure out what to do about the port improvements after the lease rejection. The state approved the extension.

In the year since then, the assembly settled on hiring an outside party to help find a way forward.

But that way forward isn’t likely to be complete by June of 2017. So, the borough assembly voted to ask for a second one-year extension on the dock improvements grant. Mayor Mark Schaefer and Assemblyman Tim Cochran said the progress they’ve made in the past year warrants an extension.

“I think we have good backup material that we can put in the packet to show that we’ve been persistent,” Schaefer said.

“We’ve made significant progress on it, so that’s what they’re looking for,” Cochran said.

Assembly member Steve Burnham Jr. pointed out that even though the port improvement plan is in flux, the borough has taken steps forward. For example, they’re working with the Alaska Department of Environmental Conservation and White Pass to address lead contamination in the ore basin.

“It’s essential that we apply for an extension,” Burnham said. “It’s not a good idea to spend money that’s ill-planned but it’s also not good to just send it back when you’re currently working on something and trying to do a good thing.”

The state approved the grant extension within hours on Friday. It sets a new deadline of June 30, 2018.

That gives the borough more time as it begins work with the newly-hired port consultant, Moffatt & Nichol. A kickoff meeting with the consultant is scheduled for Monday at 10 a.m.

The assembly also unanimously approved a request for engineering proposals for a senior center and housing facility. Voters recently passed a $6 million bond for the project. The RFP opens the door for more cost-effective designs, including higher density apartment options and alternative layouts.

At the end of the meeting, new Assembly member Orion Hanson said Skagway has a lot of projects on the horizon, but the borough needs to keep its focus on the town’s ‘bread and butter:’ the harbor.

“I just want all of us to be cautious as we go forward because we’ve got some hard decisions to make in the next year and a half, two years,” Hanson said. “I think we all know where our money comes from, and that’s the waterfront.”

Aside from the senior center, some of the projects set to come before the assembly in the near future are a recreation center expansion, vocational education building and solid waste facility.

Note: This story has been updated following the state’s approval of the grant extension request.

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