Skagway leaders still have some major disagreements about a new lease that would allow White Pass and Yukon Route Railroad 15 more years of control over city tidelands. The assembly hammered out more details on the draft memorandum of understanding Thursday. But the group is still facing criticism from the public and divisions among itself.
At some of the previous meetings, the tone from the public has been positive. Residents have said they feel better about this lease than the one that was rejected by voters two years ago.
But at Thursday’s meeting, most of the public comments were against the lease or warning the assembly to do a better job communicating what’s going on.
“There’s a lot of negative opinions and misinformation going around Skagway,” said Frank Deramo. “And unfortunately it seems like from an average community member’s standpoint there isn’t enough coming my way to inform me of what you’re doing.”
Tim Cochran and Orion Hanson are the two assemblymen who have been meeting with White Pass to negotiate changes to the current lease and a potential new agreement. They both think continuing the current relationship with the railroad is the best option.
“So I think we’re faced here with a choice,” said Hanson. “And it’s a choice that stabilizes our future.”
Hanson and Cochran say the agreement with White Pass will allow the cruise economy to continue going strong. And they say, the city would have time to come up with a plan to control its own tidelands in 2038. Another bonus, they say, is that the city will be able to take over the docks without paying millions of dollars for them.
“This MOU has addressed the concerns that the voters said before,” Cochran said. “And we end up with this infrastructure in 20 and a half years.”
But Assemblywoman Monica Carlson doesn’t think the city shouldn’t wait that long.
“We can sit here and say ‘oh we’ve got 15, 20 years to plan the future,'” Carlson said. “What’s to say the next assembly won’t lose sight of it? Just like the assemblies in the past, the councils and mayors of the past, have lost sight of the [ore basin] contamination issue.”
The assembly was able to agree on some changes to the working MOU. Perhaps the biggest of those changes is to make White Pass and the city joint cruise terminal operators starting with the new lease in 2023. Right now, White Pass oversees cruise operations.
“I think this puts the two entities that own infrastructure and property on the waterfront in joint control of the cruise terminal operations,” Assemblyman Steve Burnham Jr. said.
It passed unanimously. But two other suggested changes resulted in tie votes.
The first was to add language saying clean-up of contamination would be completed to DEC standards. Some of the assembly members asked, what if DEC said no remediation was needed? Schaefer broke a tie vote in opposition to that motion, saying it’s a question for the attorney.
Finally, the assembly was split on whether to adopt a number of amendments from a meeting with White Pass in early September. Schaefer voted yes, breaking the tie in favor of the updates.
But this process is far from over. The updated document will go to the borough attorney and staff for review, and then come back to the assembly.
Eventually, the plan is to send any new lease agreement to a public vote.
Some assembly members hope to get that done before the Oct. 3 election changes the makeup of the group.
Two new assembly members will be sworn in Oct. 9. The assembly has just one more regular meeting before then.