Two newly seated Skagway officials called the recent election a “mandate” to change course on waterfront lease talks. The new mayor proposed tabling negotiations with the town’s major tidelands leaseholder. But not everyone on the assembly is ready to do that.
Monica Carlson came to her first meeting as mayor with a bold idea.
“What I propose is halting negotiations,” Carlson said.
She said the city should cut its losses and stop talking with White Pass and Yukon Route Railroad about a new lease. White Pass is a tourist excursion that has leased city tidelands since the 1960s. It oversees the lucrative stream of cruise ships that dock in Skagway each summer.
“We must take ownership of our future and our port,” Carlson said.
The most pressing issue on the line is Skagway’s ability to accommodate larger cruise ships by 2019. Ketchikan and Juneau are expanding their docks for the vessels. But since White Pass, a private company, controls Skagway’s cruise infrastructure, the city can’t proceed with port renovations on its own.
That’s what triggered the latest round of lease talks. White Pass wants a new, 15-year contract in order to cooperate on a new floating dock. That’s what the assembly has been working on over the past several months. Carlson wants to end negotiations and start planning to take control of the tidelands after the current White Pass lease expires in 2023.
“We will work in partnership the next five years to ensure a smooth transition of ownership,” Carlson said.
Carlson’s proposal was met with a range of responses from the assembly. David Brena was just elected to the body. He and Carlson ran on platforms of opposition to the White Pass lease. Both called the election “a mandate.”
“I think the lease is not a way forward for the municipality,” Brena said.
Brena said the city should not capitulate to White Pass’ request for a new lease in order to quickly build the floating dock.
“We need the money generated from the waterfront to stay in Skagway and not be paid to an out-of-town corporate owner,” Brena said.
But Orion Hanson said, even though the lease negotiations have been frustrating, he’s not ready to give up.
“If we just abandon the MOU today…then we’ve eliminated an option,” Hanson said. “And it’s a very stable option.”
Hanson said continuing leasing the tidelands under two cruise docks is the “fiscally safe” option. Hanson pointed to late summer rockslides that shut down Skagway’s biggest dock as an example of what it would look like to lose out on larger cruise ships.
“The microcosm of this rockslide on the railroad dock would be pretty telling of how it would be in the future,” Hanson said. “Not having Tuesday, Wednesday, Thursday going gangbusters when you’re losing a boat that’s got 4,000 people on it.”
(Those days of the week are usually the busiest ship days in Skagway over the summer.)
Hanson and other assembly members say the 15-year lease would give the city time to develop a port management plan. Then, in 2038, the city would take over the tidelands and two of the cruise docks White Pass currently runs.
“I do think there is a lease out there that is mutually beneficial,” said Assembly member Steve Burnham Jr. “I don’t think the current document we’re discussing is that lease.”
Like Hanson, Burnham and Tim Cochran were not ready to stop lease negotiations.
So Carlson decided to continue the conversation in a more informal setting. She said she would schedule an assembly retreat to talk about the lease proposal. The retreat will have to be open to the public due to open meetings laws. A date has not yet been chosen.
With each week that goes by, the timeline to install a new floating dock gets shorter. Carlson and some assembly members said Skagway has probably missed the 2019 deadline. But Assemblyman Dan Henry pointed out that the Ketchikan City Council is in the early stages of its dock expansion. It just approved a design contract to renovate two of its cruise berths.