Juneau, cruise industry make nice at regional conference as decision to appeal lawsuit lingers

Juneau City Manager Rorie Watt looks on as CLIAA President John Binkley speaks at the Southeast Conference Mid-Session Summit in Juneau on Feb. 13, 2019. (Photo by Heather Holt/Southeast Conference)
Juneau City Manager Rorie Watt looks on as CLIAA President John Binkley speaks at the Southeast Conference Mid-Session Summit in Juneau on Feb. 13, 2019. (Photo courtesy Heather Holt/Southeast Conference)

The Southeast Conference Mid-Session Summit brought community leaders together in Juneau this week to talk about the region’s economy.

Tourism has been a major driver of growth lately. While that’s good for local economies, it’s also strained the relationship between Juneau and the cruise ship industry.

Despite that — and the possibility of a looming legal appeal — representatives from the city and the industry insist they’re working together to promote a strong visitor industry in Southeast.

Tourism is a bright spot in the Southeast economy. In fact, for the past two years it’s been the region’s largest private sector industry. According to Rain Coast Data, the visitor sector has brought 1,900 new jobs to Southeast since 2010.

Most importantly — unlike mining, fishing and timber — it shows promise for continued growth.

That’s why a lawsuit between the cruise ship industry and the city of Juneau has been on the mind of every port community that relies on seasonal tourism.

John Binkley is president of Cruise Lines International Association of Alaska, or CLIAA, the group that brought the lawsuit against the City and Borough of Juneau.

He spoke at the conference about his industry’s focus on sustainability — protecting the environment tourists come to see, as well as the quality of life in the communities they visit.

“So that we can sustain this industry and this economic engine, really, for Alaska and Southeast for many generations into the future,” Binkley said during an interview.

The issue at the heart of CLIAA’s lawsuit is the passenger fees that Juneau collects from cruise companies and uses to pay for tourism infrastructure.

Many Southeast port communities rely on a similar tax the state collects directly from passengers.

Last month, Judge H. Russel Holland issued a final ruling. He said Juneau could continue collecting passenger fees, but that the revenue must be spent on services that benefit the ships.

What that means exactly has already been the source of some debate between CLIAA and the city.

During a tourism session at the conference, Juneau City Manager Rorie Watt tried to reassure other communities that the city and CLIAA have a healthy working relationship.

“We were talking last night about … ‘What’s our message today, how do we coordinate our message?’ You know, till seven o’clock at night in my office,” Watt told the group. “We actually do try to work together, contrary to popular belief.”

But he also admitted that finding a solution both sides agree with isn’t easy.

“We have a little bit of a technical problem in the exact funding for the services that we provide,” he said. “We do have some disagreements, for sure, but we’re working hard to resolve those.”

CLIAA and CBJ realize the lawsuit has made other port communities uneasy. Watt and Binkley stuck to the message that they’ll continue working together so the tourism industry remains strong.

“I believe that that’s what CBJ wants to do as well — to move forward, not just for the benefit of CBJ, but all of the communities in Southeast,” Binkley said.

An appeal could still happen. Last week, the judge granted a joint motion from CLIAA and the city extending the deadline.

The Juneau Assembly has until March to decide.

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