As 2016 comes to a close, we’re taking a look back at some of the top news stories from the Gateway to the Klondike this year.
For much of the year, Skagway’s local government struggled to make progress on its mission to renovate the port. The goal is to improve the waterfront to better serve Skagway’s lucrative cruise ship economy and other activities.
“I mean, we have to evolve, or we will be left behind,” said Assemblyman Spencer Morgan.
But the borough doesn’t have complete control over the waterfront, because it leases property to the popular tourist attraction White Pass and Yukon Route Railroad. The two parties negotiated a new, 35-year lease that would have allowed the borough access for its port improvements. But the proposal failed in a public vote. Some residents said a lack of transparency during negotiations diminished public trust.
“This should happen very transparently, not behind closed doors,” said Janilyn Heger.
The assembly voted to re-engage in discussions with White Pass. But before diving into that, they decided to hire a port consultant, hoping for a ‘fresh set of eyes.’
“Having somebody from the outside that has no skin in the game whatsoever, no history, and that can just come in and look at it with a new set of eyes, I think would be a welcome approach,” said port commissioner Tim Bourcy.
The assembly settled on Anchorage-based Moffat & Nichol. The company starts work this month.
Meanwhile, the municipality and White Pass have been meeting with the Alaska Department of Environmental Conservation. DEC wants them to address long-standing lead contamination in the ore basin.
The four candidates who ran for the Skagway Borough Assembly in October said the port should be Skagway’s number one priority.
“I think for the town, our bottom line is we want to see the port viable and healthy and as long as it’s polluted and the ore dock’s in disrepair, we’re in jeopardy,” said Orion Hanson, who garnered the most votes in the October election, giving the assembly newcomer one of two open seats. Incumbent Tim Cochran kept the other seat.
But there was one more spot on the assembly that opened a few weeks after the election. Assemblyman Dan Henry was convicted on federal tax charges early in 2016. The restaurant owner admitted to failing to file federal tax returns. Henry was sentenced to a year and a day in prison. He was also investigated and fined by the Alaska Public Offices Commission for incomplete income disclosure forms. But Henry did not resign his seat on the assembly until just a couple weeks before his prison sentence. That upset some residents, including Bob Carlson.
“I believe assembly members should be of the highest character and moral,” Carlson said. “I just feel that you failed me, and our community too.”
After Henry resigned, former Assemblyman Spencer Morgan was appointed to the seat.
Also in October’s election, a $6 million bond proposition for a senior center and housing facility narrowly passed – by just five votes. Michael Baish was one of the people who led the senior center effort.
“Unlike any other similar town in Alaska, we have no senior center, no permanent senior center, and no affordable senior housing,” said Baish. “We’re unique in that aspect.”
Skagway’s elderly population is growing, just like the rest of the state. And it also looks like the town’s younger population is growing.
“For the first time in a generation, we have single-grade classrooms,” said Skagway School Superintendent Josh Coughran.
The school’s enrollment recently surpassed 100. That increase prompted Coughran and the school board to make a big change: shifting from multi-age classrooms to single-grade in the elementary school.
“I feel a strength in the grade-level identity and the team and the connectedness that my fifth graders have,” said fifth grade teacher Mary Thole. “They can now define themselves that way, which they’ve never done before.”
Skagway School may be one of the many institutions that benefit from a new fiber-optic cable installed by Alaska Power and Telephone this year. AP&T’s Mike Garrett says the cable will exponentially increase the internet capacity in Skagway and Haines. It could be extended to the Yukon in the future.
“So we’re trying to build for the future for the areas that we serve,” said Garrett.
The Gateway to the Klondike came as close as it could to a royal visit this September. The Duke and Duchess of Cambridge visited Whitehorse and Carcross to celebrate and hear from First Nations people. Ryan McDougall was part of a dance group that welcomed William and Kate in Carcross.
“[It’s] about educating people who, like the royals about our cultural ways and who we are as a sovereign people,” said McDougall.
Skagway hosted Gov. Bill Walker for the first time in October. Walker visited the community to hear from people about the Juneau Access Project. The residents in Skagway spoke overwhelmingly against the road.
“It’s time to bury the idea of a road from Juneau to nowhere,” said Barb Brodersen.
Walker announced in December that he would not pursue building a road, because of the state’s fiscal crisis.
An idea Skagway residents are more supportive of: retail marijuana. The Remedy Shoppe became the first licensed marijuana retail business in the state. But pot shop owner Tara Bass was still waiting for product to sell.
Skagway saw some worse-than-usual bear problems this summer. The Chilkoot Trail was shut down temporarily after a bear broke into a food storage cabin at Lindeman City. And, a Skagway police officer accidentally shot a bear in Dyea with a lethal slug instead of a rubber bullet. Police Chief Ray Leggett later apologized for the incident and promised better training in the future.
“I’m sorry and I’ve got nothing else to say other than we own it, and I take responsibility for it,” Leggett said. “Because I’m the chief, and I take responsibility for making sure these people are trained and do their job. And that’s an area I messed up on.”
The Klondike Gold Rush National Historical Park implemented new tours over the summer focused on the little-known story of Skagway’s Buffalo Soldiers. Company L was an all-black military unit sent to Skagway during the gold rush. Chief of interpretation Ben Hayes said telling the story was part of an effort to make national parks relevant to a more diverse country.
“They lived their lives here and in many cases we found that they were not only serving their country and completing that mission as soldiers of the United States, but they were also fighting on a second front,” Hayes said. “And that was a war of discrimination and bigotry.”
The park service tours cater to Skagway’s thousands of summer visitors, most of whom arrive on cruise ships.
The biggest ship to sail Alaska waters started visiting Skagway in summer of 2016.
“It’s not just welcoming the ship, but it is also welcoming the largest cruise ship that’s ever been to Skagway,” said the Explorer of the Seas’ captain Rick Sullivan. “That is history today.”
Skagway enters 2017 with more mega-cruise ships on the way and the future of its port still in limbo.