A small crowd gathered on the deck of the Reluctant Fisherman Inn, one of Cordova’s few restaurants and hotels. People cheered as Cordova’s only annual fireworks show exploded above the harbor. It was the grand finale of the 60th Cordova Iceworm Festival, a weeklong celebration meant to cure the midwinter blues.
Festival organizer Kelsey Hayden said the celebration’s been a good mood booster after a particularly challenging winter. The Alaska Marine Highway System ended sailings to the small Prince William Sound community in September following state budget cuts.
The cuts mean gaps in ferry service for most coastal Alaska communities this winter, and little money to fix the state’s ailing fleet. The last mainline ferry broke down last week, leaving travelers stranded. For many communities, including Cordova, the ferry is their only link to the state’s road system beyond flights.
“A lot of Cordovans just … they have that shoulder sag and just that deep sigh of, ‘Man, we can’t get out,’” Hayden said.
Without ferry service, this year’s festival was much quieter than normal. Hayden said for some events, attendance was down by half. Many visitors from Valdez and Anchorage opted to stay home. She said that hurts Cordova’s economy.
“There’s not usually anything going on this time of year, so anytime you have high school sports going on or any draw into town, it’s a boost for our small businesses,” Hayden said.
Alaska Airlines has two flights a day to Cordova, but bad weather and broken equipment closed the airport for two days.
The privately-owned barge service Alaska Marine Lines brings groceries and supplies once a week. They’ve done what they can to help by offering a half-price discount for people who need to ship their cars to Whittier. But the price is still four times higher than the ferry, and passengers can’t ride along.
Most people are opting to fly and rent a car instead. That’s expensive too, according to local bush pilot Jared Kennedy.
“I went to Anchorage the other day for a flight physical, and it’s a $1,200 trip for me, by the time I pay for the airline tickets and a hotel and a car,” Kennedy said. “It’s pretty difficult to live here sometimes.”
Greg Meyer co-owns the Reluctant Fisherman Inn with his wife. On a Monday morning, the lobby was empty, and the restaurant was closed. Normally, it would be open for breakfast and lunch, but Meyer had to cut back on hours and employees.
He and other business owners used the ferry to cut costs and haul their own freight from Anchorage. Now they’re looking at barging up supplies from Seattle because it’s cheaper. That takes money out of Alaska, Meyer said.
“I don’t think people realize the economic impact and just the time that you put into fighting these battles,” he said. “And it takes away from running your business and being with your family. It’s not fair.”
Meyer and other Cordovans are frustrated, but they haven’t given up. There’s been no mass exodus. A few people have left, but most point to the community’s resilience. The fishing town survived the Exxon Valdez oil spill. They’ve hosted fundraisers for community members who are sick and sports teams who need to travel.
“We’ll get by. We’ll survive. We’ll come up with ways to do that,” Meyer said. “Some people will leave, but most will stay, and things will get better. They might get worse first, but eventually they’ll get better.”
A spokesperson for Gov. Mike Dunleavy’s administration said the cuts are a result of a state budget deficit that exceeds $1 billion. The administration is working with an Alaska Marine Highway working group “to make recommendations on how to make the system more affordable while still providing service to Cordova and other coastal communities.”
The final summer ferry schedule will be out later this month. If a proposed schedule goes into effect, regular ferry service to Cordova won’t resume until May 20, after the town’s tourism and fishing seasons begin.