The tentative plan to re-engage with White Pass and Yukon Route Railroad in lease negotiations prompted about 10 Skagway residents to speak up at a Thursday borough assembly meeting. The comments gave a window into the dissatisfaction that drove voters to reject a proposed lease extension last fall.
The assembly hasn’t decided on a clear path forward. But the public input gave them feedback about what could be done differently this time around.
During the public testimony, a few themes surfaced. First: transparency.
“This should happen very transparently, not behind closed doors,” said Janilyn Heger.
Another theme: the tidelands property’s value.
“We need to know what this is worth. How much is the port worth?” said port commissioner Steve Hites. “Why is White Pass so dead set on getting another lease? Obviously ‘cause it’s worth so much money to them. But what is it worth to us? We’re the property owner.”
Some of the residents said if there is a new lease, it should entail a shorter time commitment and more of a financial commitment from White Pass.
Buckwheat Donahue and Gary Hanson went even further, saying the city should take back control of the port completely instead of continuing to lease a significant amount of it to the Canadian-owned railroad.
“Decisions about port commerce, port safeguards and upgrading port infrastructure need to rest with the local government, not with the Toronto boardroom,” Hanson said.
He referenced the assembly’s decision to adopt ‘Gateway to the Klondike’ as Skagway’s official slogan.
“That’s a good model but who does have the say on what passes through the gate?” Hanson said. “Our port is the Gateway and unfortunately our gate has a padlock on it and White Pass has the key. And we need to change that.”
His comments were met with applause from the audience.
Local White Pass official Tyler Rose chimed in after the other remarks, saying he hopes discussions can continue a positive way.
“I think as we look towards the future there’s a lot of gloom and doom that comes out of what’s going to happen,” Rose said. “I would like to think that through some sort of positive process, we could come to something mutually agreeable.”
Assembly member Tim Cochran said the city needs to be in the ‘driver’s seat,’ not beholden to White Pass.
“We should not be tied down to not being able to develop our own property,” he said.
Spencer Morgan and Steve Burnham Jr. said getting a market assessment of the port property would be a wise first step. Morgan said it would give them stronger footing if they were to restart negotiations.
“We need to have that number in front of us that says this is what your property is actually worth,” Morgan said. “This is a fair market value for what a lease agreement would be.”
The assembly plans to seek a proposal for a market value assessment. They also voted at a past meeting to get outside help in the form of a port consultant.
The current lease between the municipality and White Pass ends in 2023. The city had planned on extending the term in part to gain access for port improvements. They include cleaning up long-standing contamination in the ore basin and building a floating dock to accommodate larger cruise ships.
Also at Thursday’s meeting, the assembly voiced no objection to Skagway’s first marijuana retail store application. They also supported putting a bond measure on the ballot to fund a proposed senior center and housing facility. KHNS will have more on those topics in an upcoming story.