Skagway residents will elect a mayor and two borough assembly members in next week’s election. They’ll also decide the fate of a 35-year lease that dictates control of the town’s biggest economic driver– the port. At a KHNS candidate forum, mayoral and assembly hopefuls expressed opposing views on the lease.
“I support the lease and what the assembly has done,” said incumbent Mayor Mark Schaefer
“I’m absolutely opposed to it, absolutely,” said his challenger, Roger Griffin.
The two candidates hold sharply different views of the lease. Before we get into why, here’s some background on the divisive document.
Borough representatives have worked in closed-door sessions for years to negotiate an agreement with the parent company of White Pass and Yukon Route Railroad. White Pass is Skagway’s biggest employer and central tourism attraction. Mayor Schaefer, along two borough assembly members, work for the railroad.
The current lease with White Pass ends in 2023. But the municipality decided to re-negotiate before then because of a plan to upgrade and expand the port, called the Gateway Project. The city doesn’t have access to the entire port to move forward with the project, since White Pass leases and controls much of the tidelands.
Schaefer is finishing his first term as mayor. He’s in favor of the lease.
“The environmental issue is number one for me,” Schaefer said.
The Gateway Project isn’t just about expanding the port. It’s about cleaning up contamination at the ore terminal. That contamination happened decades ago when there were loose regulations on ore dust and contamination. The state says White Pass is one of several responsible parties for the contamination.
“We had community support to put money into Gateway via a bond,” Schaefer said. “That’s a pretty good indication that people want to see something done. We can’t just sit, we got to move forward with the Gateway, but to get the Gateway we had to have the lease.”
Griffin, the other mayoral candidate, is strongly opposed to the lease.
“I think it’s a bad deal for Skagway in every sense of the word,” he said.
Griffin has a list of concerns. He says it’s not fair for Skagway to pay half the cost of a new floating dock for cruise ships and then for White Pass to receive the cruise ship moorage fees. He also thinks the remediation costs don’t account for the expense of what to do with the dredged-up contaminated material once it’s out of the water and on land. Griffin also disagrees with White Pass retaining control of cruise ship docks, which he called the economic doorway to Skagway.
“According to the lease, they say they’re only leasing a fairly small piece of ground,” Griffin said. “And if I own this entire hall here but that piece of ground that’s being leased is the doorway, you have control of what goes on here. And that is the effect of what the White Pass lease will be.”
Griffin’s opposition to the lease is echoed by two write-in assembly candidates. Mavis Irene Henricksen and David Brena both say they filed as write-ins because of their views on the lease.
“The big thing I really have problems with is giving a monopoly on the waterfront to one company,” said Henricksen.
She says if there was an economic evaluation of the waterfront, and that was factored into a lease, then she might reconsider her stance.
Brena was not able to attend the forum, but he talked to KHNS in a separate interview.
“This may be the biggest issue that Skagway has faced in at least 47 years,” he said.
Brena thinks the city should wait for the current lease to expire, and then take over control of the docks currently managed by White Pass.
“They’ve been a steward of our waterfront for 47 years and currently we have a polluted harbor and an unsafe dock,” he said. “And also some question about who is responsible and should pay for the cleanup.”
The two write-in candidates are opposed to the lease, but the two assembly candidates whose names will actually appear on the ballot are in favor.
“I think it would be beneficial to Skagway for many reasons,” said assembly candidate Jay Burnham.
He says the lease is good for the community because the city will get control of more land and receive more revenue. The amount White Pass will pay to the municipality annually starts at $250,000 and increases every four years, up to $400,000. The city will also earn revenue from the seven subleases that White Pass currently has with parties such as Alaska Marine Lines and TEMSCO.
Steve Burnham Jr. is running for re-election to the assembly. He was one of the borough representatives who negotiated the lease.
“I really support it because I would really like to see the harbor get cleaned up ASAP,” Burnham said.
He pointed out the $2 million dollars the lease says White Pass must pay for contamination cleanup is not capped. The state or federal government could hold them responsible for more. Burnham said he’s in favor of the contract because it would clear the way for the municipality to earn money from commerce at the ore dock and the new floating dock, which they haven’t received revenue from before.
But, he says, it’s ultimately up to the people.
“The lease was always subject to be decided by the voters,” Burnham said. “And I’ve always been strongly in support of that. My voting record on the assembly will show I’ve always supported the vote of the people to make the final decision on this.”
He said if the public votes down the lease, the assembly will listen to that ‘loud and clear.’
Voters will make that choice next Tuesday, October 6th.
The ballot will ask, ‘shall a lease with the Pacific and Arctic Railway and Navigation Company be ratified by approval of Ordinance No. 15-18 containing essential terms and conditions of the subject lease?’
Voters will select ‘approve’ if they want the lease to move forward and ‘not approve’ if they do not.
And with that, they’ll make a big decision on the future of Skagway’s port operations.
The final public meeting on the tidelands lease is scheduled for this Friday, October 2nd at 6 p.m. in assembly chambers. It will include a PowerPoint presentation from Mayor Schaefer, Assemblyman Dan Henry and Borough Attorney Bob Blasco.
You can hear more from Skagway’s candidates by listening to the entire forum here.