How Juneau’s elected officials can make or break plans for a fifth cruise ship dock

An initial rendering of what the subport lot in downtown Juneau could become. (Courtesy of MRV Architects)

On Monday, Juneau policymakers took a big picture look at two cruise industry infrastructure projects: one, a city-owned dock for small cruise ships, and the other is Norwegian Cruise Line’s plan to build a private cruise ship dock in downtown.

Norwegian Cruise Line likely has several years of work to do before it can begin building what could be a fifth dock for big ships in downtown Juneau. On Monday, Juneau City Manager Rorie Watt laid out which steps intersect with city government, and where the Assembly can make or break the plan.

First, Watt recommends the Juneau Assembly change the city’s Long Range Waterfront Plan to allow a large cruise ship dock at Norwegian’s property. That plan affects whether the Juneau Planning Commission approves or rejects permits. As is, Watt said the plan is unclear about if the dock would be OK. Unchanged, Watt thinks the plan would lead the Planning Commission to debate that point.

“And I don’t think that’s helpful,” Watt said. “I think the discussion, if this gets to the Planning Commission, is ‘Should a dock be permitted, and if so, with what conditions?’”

Changing the waterfront plan requires a lot of public process. Watt estimated that step alone would take six months.

The city also owns the tidelands that Norwegian would need to build its new dock. And, it’s up to the Assembly to decide how to negotiate that. If the project gets to that point, Watt recommends leasing the tidelands to the company.

The Assembly has at least one more pressure point. Norwegian’s dock would impact the neighboring U.S. Coast Guard and National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration facilities.

And, the city is in the early planning stages for a new dock that would also neighbor these federal facilities. That means Norwegian, the feds and the city would all have to work out an agreement.

Watt said negotiations with the federal government won’t go well without strong support from the Juneau Assembly.

Assembly member Christine Woll asked, “Do we have any idea what kind of timeline we’re looking at for … all of these steps?”

Watt chuckled and said, “Um, a long timeline.”

Watt said these are slow processes. Working through them is likely to take years. One reason he’s laying this out now is so the public knows the city’s role, and not just Norwegian’s.

“I don’t know that the public clearly understands how and when to communicate to their elected officials,” Watt said to the Assembly. “So I think this will help the public to know when to comment to you.”

The Assembly plans to take public comment on Watt’s recommendations at its meeting next Monday. Watt said there’ll be more opportunities for public comment every step of the way.

Small Cruise Ship Dock

Juneau Docks and Harbors officials also walked the Assembly through a recent report on how to address small cruise ships’ needs.

Consultants with the McKinley Research Group, formerly the McDowell Group, spent much of last year collecting data about this part of the cruise industry.

They answered questions like, how many of these small ships come to Juneau? 21. How often? They made 272 port calls in 2019. How many people do they bring? 19,000 a year. And, is it growing? Before the pandemic, yes.

Heather Haugland with McKinley said small ship passengers account for only 1.5% of all cruise ship passengers. But they generally spend more while they’re in town.

“Largely due to hotel stays, right? ‘Cause almost all of them will stay at least the night, if not longer,” she said.

These ships compete with other vessels for a place to tie up. Docks and Harbors Board Chairman Don Etheridge said a new float for small cruise ships would help those users, too.

“We turn away fishing vessels, we turn away tenders, we turn away private yachts because we just don’t have the room for ‘em during the peak season,” Etheridge said.

There are several places a new float could be built. PND Engineers evaluated potential locations to build a new, 350-foot float. The option the Docks and Harbors Board likes best is downtown between NOAA’s facility and the parking lot for Merchant’s Wharf.

It would require working with Goldbelt, which has a vessel float nearby that would have to be extended. Federal, state and local agencies all have permitting roles.

But it also would make small cruise ship operations more efficient, improve passengers’ experience, come with new parking, and bring more business to town. And it would make it easier to connect two disjointed pieces of the city’s seawalk.

PND estimates it would cost more than $25 million. It’s just conceptual for now, but Etheridge said the money could come from cruise ship revenue.

“It’s in its infancy, so I think we got a ways to go yet,” Etheridge said.

The Assembly was receptive to the idea. Etheridge said Docks and Harbors officials will come back to the Assembly for more discussion.

February 1, 2021 Assembly Committee of the Whole

Agenda link: https://packet.cbjak.org/MeetingView.aspx?MeetingID=1421&MinutesMeetingID=-1&doctype=AgendaZoom Link: https://juneau.zoom.us/j/91096736034 or call 1-253-215-8782 WEBINAR ID: 91096736034

Posted by City and Borough of Juneau on Monday, February 1, 2021

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