Skagway leaders continue to work on a 15-year tidelands lease that would prolong a private company’s control of the waterfront. Residents will get a chance to weigh in through a public vote. But the assembly is now talking about scheduling a special election later in the year, instead of rushing to meet deadlines for the Oct. 3 general election.
Over the last couple months, the Skagway Assembly met many times to discuss the White Pass and Yukon Route Railroad lease proposal. And the tone during public comment has generally become more positive.
“I think you’re making progress,” said port commissioner Tim Bourcy.
“I’m more comfortable than I’ve ever been,” said Jan Wrentmore.
But there are still concerns.
“I want you to be able to work on the lease issues without the feeling of having a ticking time bomb hanging over you,” said Elaine Furbish.
The ticking time bomb here is a floating dock. Port consultants have urged the city to start permitting and design work on the dock ASAP in order to get it built by 2019. That’s when bigger cruise ships that need that infrastructure are due to arrive.
“If you feel rushed, don’t rush,” said White Pass President John Finlayson.
His company holds the key to a majority of the port under a lease that doesn’t end until 2023. In order to allow the city to access the ore dock and build the crucial floating addition, the company wants to extend its hold on Skagway tidelands to 2038, another 15 years.
At previous meetings, Finlayson said White Pass would not work on the floating dock without the new lease. But Wednesday, he indicated that as long as a tidelands agreement is in progress, it might be possible to start laying the groundwork for the floating dock.
“Possibly there’s a way to initiate the project, jointly initiate it, with the caveat that the town will vote for a lease,” Finlayson said.
After these comments, the assembly went into executive session with the borough attorney for an hour a half. When they came out, they seemed to agree on one thing.
“The timeframe to get this on an October ballot is just not realistic,” said Tim Cochran.
The assembly discussed holding a special election, possibly in November.
In the meantime, the city’s negotiating team will continue to meet with White Pass leaders, and the assembly will continue to discuss updates at its meetings.
Changes made to the proposed contract terms recently include a boost in White Pass’ contribution to contamination cleanup at the ore dock. That’s another component tied to the 15-year lease. The railroad would now pay $2.75 million, instead of $2.5 million. The city wants to cap its contribution at $1.5 million.
Another amendment would give the city a more active role in cruise ship scheduling, even though the lease maintains White Pass’ status as cruise terminal operator. The agreement would require regular meetings between the city and railroad to discuss cruise scheduling and operations.
Continuing White Pass’ control isn’t what everyone wants. But a couple Skagway leaders said without the agreement, the city’s place in the cruise market would be jeopardized. And that’s a big risk.
“We have incurred an insane amount of debt,” said port commissioner Bourcy.
He referred to Skagway’s bond debt and the town’s reliance on cruise revenue to cover budget deficits.
“Your budgets as they are, are maxed out,” Bourcy said. “You guys are using cruise ship head tax money to pay the bills for this community.”
Bourcy and others disagree with a finding in port consultant Moffatt & Nichol’s reports. Moffatt & Nichol said if Skagway misses out on the bigger ships that need that floating dock, its overall cruise income will still increase.
But Bourcy says that’s based on a flawed assumption that smaller ships will take the mega boats’ place. He said in order for Skagway to continue paying its bills, the lease with White Pass needs to move forward.