After a close to two-year impasse, Skagway and the company that controls much of the town’s waterfront have re-started negotiations.
According to one Skagway official, White Pass and Yukon Route Railroad is proposing a 20-year tidelands lease extension that would make way for urgent port improvements. Some of the broad strokes of the agreement were discussed publicly at a meeting Wednesday night. Despite that, the municipality and White Pass are not releasing the full proposal to the public yet.
The meeting started with a tie vote.
“I’m just trying to see a way we can do this without excluding the public,” said Assemblyman Steve Burnham Jr.
He did not want to go into a closed-door meeting to discuss White Pass’s new tidelands lease proposal.
“Because I feel that if we go into executive session to discuss this, we might as well not even bother,” Burnham said.
He didn’t want to repeat history. In 2015, voters shot down a proposed lease extension between the city and White Pass. Many were distrustful due to what they said was a lack of transparency.
The assembly voted 3-3 to go in to executive session. Mayor Mark Schaefer broke the tie in support of executive session.
Assembly member Tim Cochran said the purpose of the private meeting was to talk with the borough attorney.
“I’d like to go in just to discuss and then we can make everything public when we come out,’ Cochran said.
Did everything become public after the hour-long closed-door meeting? No.
But Assemblyman Orion Hanson did reveal some of the details as he made amendment suggestions.
“Under 2, ‘new lease agreement,’ this would be 15 years and not 20 years,” Hanson said.
According to Hanson, White Pass is proposing a 20-year lease extension in order for improvements on the port to progress.
Hanson suggests the city negotiate the time period down to 15 years. Since White Pass’s current lease ends in 2023, a 15-year extension would take it to 2038. That makes the commitment ten years shorter than the previous lease proposal.
Hanson also seemed to refer to the proposed annual lease payments White Pass would provide the city. It’s not clear if the numbers are his suggestion or the railroad’s.
“In terms of the number values, years one through five would be $250,000, six through 10 would be $300,000 and 11 through 15 $325,000,” he said.
Hanson said with some tweaking, he thinks the proposal isn’t a ‘slam dunk,’ but it is a ‘palatable deal.’
“From my perspective, and I voted against the lease before, there were three things I didn’t like,” Hanson said. “I thought White Pass wasn’t owning up to the remediation [of ore basin contamination] enough, I thought the terms of the lease were too long, and I thought the city wasn’t getting a good enough deal.”
There was some confusion about whether Hanson revealing certain aspects of the proposal meant the document was public.
“This document is not public,” Steve Burnham said.
“Well it is now ‘cause we’re talking about it,” Schaefer responded.
“Well then are we releasing it so the public can review it?” Burnham asked.
White Pass President John Finlayson said he would like the document to remain private until the two parties come to a final agreement.
“You release it to the public as a unified document, not one to be negotiated,” Finlayson said. “That was my intention.”
The assembly agreed not to release the full proposal yet, despite the fact that some of the details are already out in the open.
KHNS tried to confirm the details with White Pass officials. They did not return calls by deadline for this story.
So, one question remaining is at what stage the new lease proposal will be released to the public. A municipal negotiating team plans to meet with White Pass again July 6.
Another question is whether it will go to a public vote, like the last proposal. Hanson said he thought it should. But Finlayson said that could slow down progress.
“I can’t stress enough how important the timing is,” Finlayson said. “You’re so close that I wake up in the middle of the night worrying about it.”
Skagway is working with a very tight deadline. It needs to renovate its port to accommodate bigger cruise ships due to arrive in 2019. If it doesn’t meet that deadline, city officials say they could lose out on millions of dollars in revenue.