At a Thursday meeting, the Skagway Borough Assembly decided to have two conversations about how options to use $7 million in state grant funds for port improvements: one with the Alaska Department of Transportation and one with White Pass and Yukon Route Railroad.
The meeting was attended by White Pass President John Finlayson. Finlayson requested a meeting with municipal leaders, saying he wants to continue with a ‘cooperative, not competitive’ relationship.
Skagway officials say there are two main port priorities. One, a floating dock for newer, bigger ‘Breakaway’-class cruise ships.
“We’ve talked over the last few years over how sensitive we are to the calendar over what’s going on with port,” said Assembly member Dan Henry. “Well we cannot be any more sensitive right now as to the need of installing a floating dock to accommodate those vessels. They will be in Hoonah or they will be in Haines, period.”
The other priority is to clean up legacy contamination at the ore terminal.
The Gateway Project included both of those components and it was the original plan. But it was contingent on cooperation from White Pass, which leases much of the tidelands from the municipality. When a lease extension between Skagway and White Pass was voted down by the public in October, the assembly put the Gateway Project on hold. But they still have $7 million in state funding for port improvements. The deadline to spend that money is less than a year and a half away.
“A year is not a long time,” said Assemblyman Tim Cochran at a work session in January. “It’s going to go by blindingly fast. And the cruise industry is constantly scheduling out. So basically we have a very short amount of time before we’re in competition for this port.”
Gateway Project Manager Chad Gubala presented the idea last year of a combined ferry/cruise ship dock. The assembly directed Borough Manager Scott Hahn to talk to the DOT Ferry Chief Mike Neussl to see if collaboration might be possible.
Skagway’s lobbyist, John Walsh, expressed doubt about DOT dropping its current plans for the ferry terminal. But the assembly decided it’s still a conversation worth having.
What about White Pass? Borough manager Hahn said in November that a meeting with White Pass’s Finlayson was not productive.
“There’s no sense of urgency on the part of White Pass for the Gateway project or cleanup,” Hahn said at the time.
“I’ve read things in the paper that say White Pass is dragging their feet, it’s not urgent, coming from city staff,” Finlayson said. He attended Thursday’s meeting to say his piece.
“I’m just not sure where we’re missing the boat if you guys are disappointed in how we’re conducting ourselves or how we’re responding to your requests, so I wouldn’t mind clarification on that at some point,” he continued. “We do strongly believe it’s in the best interest of White Pass and the city to work together.”
Finlayson asked for a private meeting with municipal officials to look for a ‘win-win’ plan for the city’s port. Mayor Mark Schaefer said they would consult with the borough attorney to see if executive session would be allowed in that case.
Assembly member Steve Burnham said if the conversation with White Pass continues, the city should hire a professional facilitator.
“Plenty of individuals in the community have requested that we have some sort of professional guidance in that,” Burnham said. “And I think that we need to follow that suggestion.”
So, the municipality plans to have two important conversations about the port: one with DOT, and one with White Pass.
The assembly also voted to carry on with design and planning for a senior center and housing facility.
“What we’re trying to do is respond to a need [for a senior center] that we have and have had for 25 years,” Henry said.
The senior center itself is estimated to cost about $2.7 million. Adding senior apartments on top of the center would bring the project cost to about $7 million. The assembly voted to move forward with design work on the entire project. Burnham said, if along the way, there’s not enough money for the apartments, they could adapt.
“So if the time comes when we go we can’t put a senior center off any longer but we can’t afford senior housing, it’s on the other floor, it’s pretty easy to change that,” Burnham said. “Moving forward with the design for the big plan is probably the right thing to do.”
In the meantime, borough officials will try to figure out the best way to pay for it. Hahn said the assembly finance committee would meet soon to lay out all the major projects on the horizon and break down how to fund them.