Can Juneau handle 1.5 million cruise ship visitors? Docks and Harbors says it’s time to plan

A pair of Panamax cruise ships docked in downtown Juneau on Aug. 30, 2017. The floating berths have eliminated the need for yellow security fencing and opened up a wide promenade for pedestrians. (Photo by Jacob Resneck/KTOO)

Juneau could see 1.5 million cruise ship passengers per season in the next decade, according to a recent study commissioned by the city’s Docks and Harbors.

In order to plan for the influx, Docks and Harbors is crafting a plan for the downtown waterfront.

Juneau has invested millions in new floating berths to accommodate bigger cruise ships that tie up downtown.

The floating docks can accommodate four large ships at a time plus one anchored offshore. In real numbers, that’s 10,000 to 15,000 passengers and crew daily.

City Port Engineer Gary Gillette said it was necessary to move with the times.

“The city built these two new cruise berths at the direction of the industry,” Gillette said. “They basically said, ‘We’ve got bigger ships coming and the docks that you have can’t accommodate them.'”

There’s also more space created by the floating berths. Gone is the yellow security fencing.

The long, broad wooden seawalk is a pedestrian promenade once again.

Last year Juneau broke the million passenger mark for the first time since 2009, when the Great Recession hit the cruise industry hard. And the numbers are expected to keep rising.

Gillette said forward thinking is needed for the promenade and the vendors that serve it.

“Rather than just say the first guy comes along, ‘OK, you go over here.’ And the next guy comes along, ‘Well, we’ll put you over here.’ And then in five or 10 years we go, ‘Oh god, why did we do that with no plan?” he said. “Now we’ve got a mess. How do we figure that out?'”

Docks and Harbors commissioned Rain Coast Data to make some projections on visitor numbers.

“The number that the cruise ship industry often have touted to use as a projected growth number is 2 percent, and so if you take that 2 percent growth figure and you march it forward, we’re going to see a 1.5 million cruise ship passengers in Juneau in 15 years,” said Meilani Schijvens, the research firm’s director.

Schijvens data shows visitor numbers are climbing at twice that rate.

“Mirroring what has happened over the past 15 years and moving that forward, we’re going to have 1.5 million cruise ship passengers in Juneau in 10 years,” she said.

Either way, a half-million more cruise ship visitors would have an impact downtown.

“We’ve got all those people disembarking in the downtown Juneau area. They’re moving through the stores, they’re moving through the community,” Schijvens said. “We want that to be a really positive experience for them, we want it to be a positive experience for the locals.”

Docks and Harbors is working on an urban design plan.

Consultants working on the plan said the newly opened up waterfront isn’t just for people off the ships – it’s for everyone.

Consultants Chris Mertl, foreground, and Dick Somerville sketch concepts during an open studio held by Docks and Harbors on Sept. 7. (Photo by Jacob Resneck/KTOO)

“We’re seeing a lot of locals are coming down and spending time down here just because there’s plenty of open space,” said lead consultant Chris Mertl, a landscape architect. “There’s artwork, there’s vendors and it’s really becoming an area of activity, it’s no longer congested. We’re looking at opportunities of how can we carry this success down the length of the seawalk, down towards Marine Park.”

Strong visitor numbers are good for the economy. But there are also broader questions about the downtown’s capacity.

“How many cruise ship passengers can our community handle and not constantly impact our quality of life,” asked Juneau resident Sue Schrader at a recent workshop hosted by Docks and Harbors. “We’re up to over a million. What are we going do? When are we going to start talking about this? I think the time is now.”

There hasn’t been a study on the downtown’s upper limit for cruise ship visitors, nor is Docks and Harbors asking that question specifically.

But Rob Steedle head of the city’s Community Development Department, said it’s something worth pondering.

“How many more vans can we put on our streets before the experience of the visitors is greatly diminished, before the experience of residents is greatly diminished? How many more destinations would need to be developed for all those visitors?” Steedle said. “That’s the question I think we should be asking ourselves is: ‘How many people can this community absorb?'”

Cruise ships bring more than 90 percent of tourists to Juneau.

Overall, visitors paid nearly a fifth of the local sales tax last year. And the marine passenger fee also funds much of the city’s dockside infrastructure and services.

But there are always unintended consequences.

“Tourism has been hugely beneficial for Juneau in terms of sales tax revenue, certainly, and in terms of employment,” Steedle said. “But is the quality of life going to diminish? And I think so far, I think the answer of the community is coming up with is: ‘No, it’s not.’ But at a million and a half? Will we have too many? We’ll see in another 10 to 15 years.”

Docks and Harbors’ urban design plan is limited to the immediate waterfront between Marine Park and Taku Smokeries.

But the planning exercise is a chance to delve into larger issues facing downtown in the long run.

Initial design concepts for waterfront planning will be presented to the Docks and Harbors board at 5 p.m. Thursday, Sept. 28, in the Assembly chambers.

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