By Greta Mart/KHNS
This week Skagway officials hosted a second informational session on the pending tidelands lease with White Pass and Yukon Route Railroad.
On Monday evening, City Hall staff lined the AB Hall’s assembly room walls with poster-sized printouts of lease details and laid out a buffet of snacks. The session was called an “open-house.”
Mayor Mark Schaefer and Assembly members Dan Henry and Steve Burnham Jr. served as hosts, but there was no formal presentation or group discussion about the lease. Here’s Burnham:
“The idea is to just put the information that we have out to the public so they can review the information…it’s as accurate as we could muster. And it’ll allow people to formulate questions, talk amongst themselves. Make informed decisions about whether they are pro-lease or against the lease,” said Burnham.
“It’s just to get the information out there to the public and let everyone know that the municipality is actively taking questions and we’re working really hard on an FAQ – frequent asked questions – that is going to be like a living document online so people can go to the municipal website and read the questions as we’ve answered them,” said Burnham.
He said Monday’s meeting was one of several informational sessions City Hall plans to hold over the next month on the lease, but no dates have been set.
During the meeting, people roamed in and out, chatting with neighbors and looking over handouts about the lease.
“I’m here to get the straight information on the project as opposed to what you hear in the coffee shops,” said resident Carl Mulvihill says there is a lot of confusion in the community over the lease. “Because there are basically four different projects involved in this thing. And people are mixing them all together.”
At the start of the meeting, roughly 50 people stopped by to learn more, but an hour later attendance dwindled to officials and a handful of residents.
Andrew Cremata said he came to learn more about the Gateway Project and how it’s related to the tidelands lease.
“I think a lot of the onus for the White Pass lease was so that state money could be gathered together for the Gateway Project. But until we know what the Gateway Project is, and how much it’s going to cost and what benefit it’s going to have to the community, I’m curious as to why we’re jumping the gun on the White Pass lease,” said Cremata.
The company that owns the railroad also owns a large section of waterfront land, tidelands and docks at Skagway’s port. Since 2009, Skagway elected officials have been negotiating a new lease of the tidelands so that the municipality can move forward on contamination remediation and port improvements, called the Gateway Project.
Mayor Mark Schaefer says if residents don’t approve the lease at the Oct. 6 election, it will stymy the Gateway Project.
“We can’t be sure but it could be seen as a vote of no confidence on the lease means that as far as access to do Gateway goes, we’ll probably put a halt to that for some time. We’ll have to wait and see how it turns out,” said Schaefer.
The lease is going to a public vote because municipal code says that any lease that brings in $5 million or more to city coffers must be approved by voters. The tidelands lease ballot question was originally scheduled for a special election in August. But after hearing from members of the public who wanted more time, the assembly decided to cancel the special election and move the lease question to the October 6th municipal election.
At the first tidelands lease informational session held in July, officials gave a PowerPoint presentation and audience members asked questions as a group moderated by the borough manager. That meeting grew heated at times as attendees questioned the agreement’s value to taxpayers.
On Monday, several attendees said they didn’t think the open-house format provided sufficient information about the lease. Dennis Corrington called it a meaningless ‘PR stunt.’ Jeff Brady said over the next month, he wants the municipality to provide comprehensive details.
“I hope they answer every single question. Don’t just lump them into different topics or anything; They need to get out there and answer every single question. And there also needs to be a proper debate forum,” said Brady. “It’s the future of our port…the citizens are getting a lot back for this proposal but it’s a question whether it’s enough to keep what’s been called the Skagway advantage in terms of making the port attractive. And that’s the biggest issue with me.”
Assembly member Dan Henry says there is confusion over the revenue to the municipality outlined in the new lease. He says that the White Pass lease is not intended to replace municipal incomes such as property, sales and excise taxes.
“They are just in a lease agreement with the city no differently than AML, Temsco, Petro Marine, AIDEA, Jewell Gardens, Skagway Fish Company, Pescaritos, Pullen Creek RV Park…they’re all city leases and the city is – like any other city – trying to facilitate business, which is what government’s role is,” said Henry. “I suppose if your viewpoint is that somehow the city should be gutting White Pass relative to what they think they’re revenue stream is from operating those two docks that they built…I suppose then what we should be doing, if we are doing that to one we certainly should be doing it to them all, we’re gonna go to everybody else we have leases with and tell ‘em to open up their books, we want a chunk.”
The complete draft tidelands lease can be found on the Skagway borough website under the documents section.