The state has approved a one-year deadline extension for Skagway’s port improvement grant that was awarded five years ago. That moves the deadline for the municipality to use about $7 million in state funds to June 30, 2017. The grant was originally intended for the Gateway Project, which is now on hold. The assembly decided to ask for the one-year extension at a meeting last week.
The fact that the deadline to use the state funds was looming just six months away put stress on the assembly. Especially since they haven’t decided on how to use the money. It was originally awarded for the Gateway Project. But work on those plans stopped after voters rejected a tidelands lease between Skagway and White Pass and Yukon Route Railroad. The lease rejection led to a stalemate over the municipality working in areas currently under White Pass’s control.
“We got three choices: send the money back, re-describe what we want to do with it or ask for an extension,” said Mayor Mark Schaefer.
Assemblyman Spencer Morgan said the municipality should try to keep those funds for port improvements.
“I would hate to see these funds go unused in this community, so let’s do whatever we can to try to keep some ball rolling,” he said.
With the assembly’s blessing, the municipality sent a letter to the state January 8, asking for a one year extension to the deadline. That same day, the grants administrator wrote back approving the extension.
Chad Gubala, the Gateway Project Manager, called the extension a ‘game changer’ and said it was ‘astounding’ to receive such a fast approval. Gubala is meeting with Skagway’s mayor and manager this week to come up with a ‘revised approach’ to using the grant money.
A floating dock is one piece of infrastructure municipal officials hope those funds can support. The dock would accommodate larger cruise ships slated to sail in the next couple years. The assembly voted to send a letter to White Pass asking if the company is willing to cooperate on the dock. Here’s Schaefer:
“Is there a way we can use this money so we can get that dock, which we know is important in Skagway, in place prior to the arrival of those vessels? I think it is a valuable question to ask,” said Schaefer. “I’m not optimistic, but…you know.”
Schaefer said the Skagway port commission is in favor of leveraging the state grant for a floating dock.
The majority of public comment at last week’s meeting was in support of one of the port commission members, Steve Hites. Hites has been under scrutiny by the assembly after some comments he made at a port commission meeting that were reported by the Skagway News. Hites said he talked with Norwegian Cruise Line representatives about the future of Skagway’s port, which some assembly members saw as inappropriate.
A discussion about Hites was on the meeting agenda, but the assembly removed it at the start of the meeting because the discussion wasn’t in executive session. Schaefer said the borough attorney doesn’t think the discussion qualifies for executive session. The assembly still voted to remove the item from the agenda. Despite that, several residents spoke in Hites’ defense.
“He is a valued member of the port commission,” said Port Commission Chair Tim Bourcy. “He brings a level of knowledge to the table with regard to cruise-specific tourism that no one else in this community brings to the table.”
The assembly did not specify whether Commissioner Hites will come up on another meeting agenda or not.
Also at last week’s meeting, the assembly voted to reverse a decision made in November to require borough committees and boards to hold meetings in assembly chambers. Assembly member Steve Burnham Jr. made that suggestion after attending a clinic board meeting that was packed into the clinic conference room. He said a set-up like that is not welcoming to the public.
But representatives from the library, museum, and clinic have protested that change.
“We’ve spent so much money on the beautiful clinic facility that has a wonderful meeting room in there, and the library…so I say leave it up the committees where they would like to meet,” said Collette Hisman.
Steve Burnham said he still felt places like the clinic board room could be unwelcoming to members of the public. But he agreed to a motion that would let committees and boards meet at their facilities, with the condition that they have a back-up plan if the facility is too full. That motion passed unanimously.
Finally, the assembly got an update on the direction the pool ad hoc committee wants to take. That committee was formed to come up with a plan for the proposed aquatic wellness center. Assembly member Morgan is the chair. He said they decided to invite USA Swimming to come to Skagway to consult on the pool and come up with recommendations.
“They’ve done this in other communities and I think it will give us a better idea of what we’re looking at going forward,” Morgan said.
The public is encouraged to attend the two-day workshop with USA Swimming on April 12 and 13.