The Skagway Assembly will try to separate short-term waterfront improvements from a long-term lease proposal. That was the indication after a special meeting Wednesday night.
After an about hour and 45 minute meeting, Assemblyman Jay Burnham said this:
“So basically what we’ve just done is say we want to talk to White Pass about a floating dock and cleaning up the ore terminal, and we’ll talk about a lease later.”
This new direction comes after several assembly discussions around a new lease proposal from White Pass and Yukon Route Railroad, and entreaties from residents, like Nicki Bunting.
“I think it’s time to stop putting ourselves in a position where if we want to keep our land safe and clean we have to stop considering ourself trespassers on our own land,” Bunting said. “I think it’s time to take our waterfront back.”
White Pass has leased the lion’s share of Skagway’s port since the 1960s. Since then, the town has become a major a cruise destination. Skagway is now at risk of being unable to accommodate larger cruise ships. The town needs to build a new floating dock for the vessels.
White Pass is willing to cooperate on the floating dock. But its lease is up in five years. Before investing money in new infrastructure, the company wants assurance its lease on key sections of tidelands continues for at least another 15 years.
Assemblywoman Monica Carlson came to Wednesday’s meeting with what she called a ‘hail Mary’ proposal. Carlson said she doubted Skagway voters would agree to a new 15-year lease.
“But I think they would consider something where it’s guaranteed that the harbor’s going to be cleaned up, we’re going to get a dock, we’re going to have revenue, but it might not be right away,” Carlson said. “And we will get our uplands back. But I think it’s a way forward. And then we can negotiate after 2023 for everything else.”
Carlson said instead of agreeing to a long-term lease under the pressure of the cruise ship deadline, the city should enter into an contract just focused on the floating dock. She proposed allowing White Pass to collect all the dock revenue through 2023, and then sharing the income for five years after that.
Carlson’s proposal had a number of other stipulations, including a corporate surety bond to hold White Pass accountable for ore basin contamination cleanup.
Assemblyman Spencer Morgan agreed with the spirit of Carlson’s proposal.
“This idea is kind of what I was hoping White Pass would throw our way instead of going for a lease again,” Morgan said.
But he didn’t think the railroad would agree to it. Orion Hanson said the same.
“They want a lease,” Hanson said. “They want to be able to project out 20 years so that when they put infrastructure in they know they’ll get a return on their investment. If they had any inclination that they would just do one part of it, I think that would be separated out so far.”
Carlson ended up withdrawing her proposal. Even though other members liked some of her ideas, they wanted to have more time to review it in written form before endorsing it.
But then Assemblyman Steve Burnham Jr. suggested a simpler step forward.
Right now, White Pass’s proposal is in three parts: a current lease amendment that includes a floating dock, a new long-term lease picking up after 2023, and an environmental cleanup agreement.
Burnham suggested they combine part one, the current lease amendment, with part three, the ore basin cleanup. He said it’s already the city’s stance that White Pass needs to remediate the pollution by the time the current lease is up.
The assembly unanimously agreed those two pieces should be connected.
Whether the short-term floating dock and cleanup agreement will be followed by a 15-year second lease is still a question for the assembly and for negotiations with White Pass.
If there is a new lease, the assembly has decided it will go to a public vote.