Skagway is at an impasse with the company that controls much of its waterfront. It’s been about a year and a half since voters overwhelmingly rejected a tidelands lease between the borough and White Pass and Yukon Route Railroad. Since then, plans to renovate and clean up the port have stalled. The assembly recently hired Moffatt & Nichol as a port consultant to help move things forward. The first step for the consultants is gathering public input. They held meetings in Skagway this week.
Tyler Rose is an executive with White Pass. He stands in front of a map, pointing out sections of Skagway’s port that the tourist attraction either owns or leases from the borough.
“[White Pass leases] the area that encompasses the Broadway dock, the ore dock, the ore terminal facility, the Temsco area, the AML yard and the parking lot that’s used for loading in the Broadway dock area,” Rose said.
That’s a lot of the waterfront. White Pass owns the three cruise ship docks and leases the tidelands around them. That lease is due to expire in 2023.
“We’ve still got one main obstacle: we need access to the property, which we don’t enjoy without the blessing of the lease-holder,” said Skagway Mayor Mark Schaefer.
He thought the town had an answer to the access issue back in 2015. The borough negotiated a lease extension with White Pass. It gave the railroad rights to the tidelands property for another 35 years. In return, White Pass would allow Skagway to work in its territory.
“This has always been White Pass’s position: sure, we’ll work with you, but in order for you to get onto the property and disrupt the quiet enjoyment, we’re gonna need a new lease,” Schaefer said.
But many residents were not happy with that new lease. It was rejected in a public vote in fall of 2015. Gary Hanson is a former assembly member and who opposed the lease.
“Skagway has never in its history had any ownership of its waterfront facilities,” Hanson said. “Sure we own the land, but all the facilities have always been privately-owned. And that has presented a problem for us in that we can’t make any long-term plans for our port unless it goes through the people that it’s leased to, in this case it’s White Pass. They are the gatekeepers of our port.”
Hanson wants the municipality to take control of the area it leases to White Pass once the contract expires.
But that’s not for another six years, and there is a lot Skagway wants to accomplish on the port before then. First, it wants to clean up long-standing lead contamination in its ore basin and renovate the industrial facilities there.
Second, it wants to accommodate larger cruise ships. Breakaway-class cruise ships are set to sail to Alaska waters next year. Juneau and Ketchikan are already working on infrastructure that can handle the massive vessels. But Skagway is stuck.
The port consultants need to take all of this into account.
“It seems like Skagway’s in a position now of, OK so how should we look at all these arrangements now? Or how is it working now, what should we do next?” said Julie Dinneen, a sub-contractor for Moffatt & Nichol. She was brought onto this project to conduct an appraisal of the port, which Dinneen says is very unique.
“You have a million passengers off the ships, but you have a small population,” Dinneen said. “And some place like Whittier or Seward or Hoonah might have a similar population but they don’t get all the cruise ship passengers. So there really isn’t any apples and apples. So the data that I present will cover a pretty wide spectrum and Skagway will go, well where are we on this spectrum?”
Moffatt & Nichol will also have to weigh divergent opinions from residents about what should come first in future port renovations.
Andrew Cremata says the borough should focus on Skagway’s booming cruise ship industry.
“Now there’s a lot more commerce and industry here in the winter months because of the fact that tourism has brought people here who can sustain themselves on that temporary income during the summer,” Cremata said. “So tourism creates the year economy. To sit there and say we don’t have a year-round economy and we need one doesn’t make a lot of sense.”
“I think we can be so much more to the community than just a summertime tourist attraction,” said port commissioner John Tronrud.
Tronrud thinks Skagway should capitalize on its location as a gateway to the Yukon, and develop the port to handle more mining shipments and other industry that could create year-round jobs.
About 40 people showed up to Monday’s meetings. The Moffatt & Nichol representatives will take the public input to the rest of their team. In February, the consultants will be back to present their initial ideas on a complex situation of significant importance to Skagway’s future.