Moving forward with harbor contamination clean-up and improvements on Skagway’s waterfront is the most important priority for the town. That’s the consensus from the three candidates for two open Skagway Borough Assembly seats. At a KHNS forum Monday, candidates David Brena, Tim Cochran, and Orion Hanson expressed similar views on many issues. But each candidate brings different experience that shapes his outlook.
Of the three candidates, there is one incumbent, Tim Cochran, who is campaigning for his third three-year term on the assembly.
“I feel a little bit of an obligation to give back to the town I grew up in,” Cochran said.
The two challengers, David Brena and Orion Hanson, say they would bring a different kind of scrutiny to the assembly. Hanson, a general contractor, says he has experience distinguishing the frivolous from the necessary.
“I think that’s something that we haven’t always had those kind of eyes on the assembly of someone who can look at a project and analyze things that are not needed and wasteful,” Hanson said.
Brena, a real estate developer, says he would bring real estate appraisal experience to the waterfront conundrum. Progress on the port was stalled last year when voters rejected a tidelands lease negotiated between the municipality and White Pass and Yukon Route Railroad.
“This is a glaring hole in the negotiations that have occurred throughout the last eight years, in that they haven’t completed a market value analysis of the waterfront,” Brena said.
Cochran was on the assembly while municipality representatives negotiated the now-rejected lease with White Pass. He says things are moving in the right direction now – the assembly has agreed to hire an independent port consultant.
“Residents here that are serving on the assembly, no one’s an expert on the whole waterfront, the complexities, and we need help. And we need to admit that,” he said.
Along with Brena and Hanson, Cochran agrees that there should be an analysis of what the waterfront property in question is worth.
“It needs to be assessed and we need to go forward and we need to be transparent for sure,” Cochran said.
The topic of transparency was first brought up by Hanson. He’s made it one of his main campaign issues. He says going forward in port discussions, transparency is crucial.
Hanson says the lease between the municipality and White Pass that was proposed last year was a bad deal. But he thinks that shouldn’t preclude further efforts to engage with the railroad.
“I don’t think you look ahead past negotiating with White Pass,” Hanson said. “I think you have to find common ground, and if you can’t, then, well, in 2023 you go from there. But there’s such a long history with White Pass and they’re so invested in this community…I would not be alive were it not for White Pass.”
Cochran agreed that the assembly needs to re-engage with White Pass.
“The railroad is the reason that Skagway stayed on the map,” Cochran said.
When asked what the municipality should do when the current lease with the railroad ends in 2023, the candidates all said it was too early to tell. Some residents have pushed for the municipality to form a port authority or something similar that would manage the waterfront property currently leased by the railroad.
Although Brena has made his disdain for last year’s proposed lease extension clear, he didn’t rule out prolonging the town’s arrangement with White Pass.
“We need to flesh out these scenarios and especially toward the public’s opinion on whether or not there should be a monopoly on the waterfront or not,” Brena said. “And if the answer is no then maybe the municipality, through a port authority of its own or a contract authority, maybe that’s a scenario.”
Brena says those are options that need to be economically analyzed. He says Skagway needs to keep its eye on the ball — cleaning up contamination and building infrastructure to keep the cruise ships coming.
“We talk a lot about economic diversity but 90-plus percent of our economy is based on cruise ships and tourism,” Brena said.
Along with the assembly and school board races, Skagway residents will also vote on a ballot question next week. The question asks whether residents support a $6 million bond for a senior center and housing facility. The tentative plan is to pay for that bond debt by raising property taxes.
“I think a senior center is overdue,’ Hanson said. “For a town with the resources Skagway has to have no sort of senior center at all…we’ve really missed the boat on that.”
Brena says he’s not opposed to the senior center, but he would prioritize port projects when it comes to funding.
All the candidates say they’re concerned about Skagway’s bonding debt level. This project would bring it up to about $26 million.
But Cochran says, ultimately, he would follow the voters’ will on the senior center question.
The election takes place Oct. 4. You can listen to the full candidate forum here.