Opponents present case against ballot questions that would limit Juneau cruise ship traffic

The Celebrity Eclipse is moored to one of two city-owned, visitor-funded floating docks in downtown Juneau on Aug. 15, 2019. At about 122,000 gross tonnage, it and many other cruise ships of its size would be banned from Juneau under a proposed ballot question. (Jeremy Hsieh/KTOO)

Earlier this month, a local activist submitted paperwork to start a ballot question campaign to limit cruise ship traffic in Juneau. Three days later, other locals started an opposition group called Protect Juneau’s Future.

Shortly after the ballot questions were formally proposed, Craig Dahl, executive director of the Greater Juneau Chamber of Commerce, told his members, “The message that the group has right now is very simple: Don’t sign the petitions.”

The group’s campaign against the ballot initiatives to limit cruise ship traffic to Juneau was the subject of the chamber’s weekly talk on Thursday.

There are three proposed amendments to the City and Borough of Juneau’s charter:

  • The first would ban big cruise ships in town between 7 p.m. and 7 a.m.
  • The second would ban big cruise ships on Saturdays.
  • The third would ban cruise ships over a certain size beginning in 2026.

Before the pandemic, the cruise industry pumped millions of dollars into Juneau’s economy each season, and into city coffers through passenger fees and sales taxes.

At a chamber meeting, Dahl called the cruise ship industry the third leg of Juneau’s economic stool. He said a lot of relief programs have kept Juneau’s economy and city government financially afloat during the pandemic.

“But the fact of the matter is, if this is to completely go away or the majority of it go away, there’s not much there to help us make up that difference,” he said.

The ballot question banning ships over a certain size would have the biggest impact of the three. Laura Martinson, who is with the group opposing the initiatives, said it would ban the entire Princess fleet.

If all three proposed changes were applied to the 2022 cruise ship calendar, Martinson said it’s conservative to estimate three quarters of all cruise ship passengers would be blocked.

Martinson owns the gift shop Caribou Crossing on South Franklin Street. She said limiting cruise ship passenger numbers that much would take Juneau back to passenger levels of the mid-1990s. She said the growth since then has opened up a lot of opportunities for new businesses that locals enjoy that are only sustainable with the high volume of cruise ship passengers.

The city clerk’s office has until the close of business Monday to approve or reject the ballot initiatives to move on to the signature gathering stage. If approved, the organizers will have to collect signatures from about 3,000 qualified voters for each question over 30 days to get them on the municipal ballot for the election in October.

Martinson said it’s appropriate to have a community conversation about how much tourism is too much, but said these ballot questions aren’t the vehicle for it.

“Being in this industry for actually 22 years, I feel like the entire time, we’ve been defending our existence as local business owners and tourism,” Martinson said. “And this is not a new conversation. But what I’m hoping comes out of this on the other side is a little bit more community education on what our industry actually does bring to the community and how valuable our industry is.”

Martinson and Dahl said the city’s Visitor Industry Task Force and the Tourism Best Management Practices program are better ways to have a dialogue about tourism impacts.

Dahl said legal challenges against the ballot initiatives are unlikely for now. But he said they are likely if voters pass any of them. He shared some potential problems.

“For example, the city might control two docks, but they don’t control the private docks,” Dahl said. “There’s contentions over who actually has authority over the port. There’s a lot of issues that this doesn’t really address.”

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