As 2017 comes to a close, we’re taking a look back at some of the top stories from Skagway this year.
The future of Skagway’s waterfront was front and center this year.
In June, port consultants advised the municipality on how to prepare for larger cruise ships in coming years. They recommended modifying the ore dock. Sean McFarlane is with Moffat & Nichol.
“The larger ships are coming to Skagway,” McFarlane said. “And what is important to know and remember is that if you’re not able to accommodate these larger vessels, there’s not a slightly smaller vessel waiting at anchor to come in if you can’t accommodate that one. So there’s not a ‘do nothing’ scenario for Skagway that results in the same level of visitors.”
But that part of the port is tied to a tidelands lease with White Pass and Yukon Route Railroad. The municipality needs the private company’s cooperation to move forward with ore dock renovations now. The current lease is up in 2023.
A couple years ago, voters rejected a 35-year tidelands lease extension.
But this year, Skagway and White Pass re-started waterfront negotiations. A negotiating team worked on a memorandum of understanding between the two parties. The MOU would make way for a new, 15-year lease, port improvements, and set conditions for cleanup and remediation of the ore basin.
Assemblyman Tim Cochran is on the negotiating committee.
“I would like to be optimistic about this memorandum of understanding going forward,” said Cochran. “We are light-years beyond the 2015 MOU and lease. We’ve got a lot of protective language in there. Way over and beyond what we had before. I’d like to see White Pass agree to that stuff and go forward.”
The port played a big role in this year’s municipal election. Two write-in candidates came out on top – both want to see municipal control of the port.
Monica Carlson unseated two-time incumbent Mayor Mark Schaefer.
“Even though I opposed the lease, I worked on making it the best for the city if they were to approve it,” Carlson said. “We’ll see what the new assembly wants to do, if they want to continue. If they do want to continue with the lease and finalize it, I believe that everyone in this community has a voice and they should be able to express their voice on the lease.”
Carlson is Skagway’s first female mayor in two decades.
And David Brena came out on top in the assembly race.
“I think it’s a mandate to be more aggressive on the cleanup of the contamination,” Brena said. “And also that Skagway moving forward wants some autonomy.”
Longtime assemblyman Dan Henry returned to the dais. In 2016, Henry was sentenced to a year in prison on federal tax charges. Returning to Skagway, he ran a successful campaign in a race that came down to just five votes.
Late summer rockslides amid heavy rain near Skagway’s railroad dock drew attention to a potential danger looming overhead. The slides led to the closure of the dock at the end of the season, limiting cruise ships visiting.
White Pass representative Tyler Rose.
“We’re trying to see if we can change itineraries so that we don’t have any misses and we’ll be able to get ships to come in on days when there is a berth available,” Rose said. “Ideally, if we could wave a magic wand, we’d do it to where we didn’t have to tender at all.”
Two new businesses that are part of emerging industries opened this year. The Remedy Shoppe made the town’s first legal pot sales in January. The business was the first retail marijuana store licensed in the state. Tara Bass is the shop’s owner.
“It was the first time in my life here that sometimes I get a few sideways looks,” Bass said. “But they’re also very open to talk to me, which I appreciate. Because if they do want to talk about, if they’re uncomfortable, then I understand. I’ve invited all the people who feel comfortable or uncomfortable to come in and learn about it if they want to.”
And Skagway Spirits, the town’s first distillery, opened its doors this summer. The business is a family operation, built through the efforts of Gary, Lucas, and Janilyn Heger.
“The day that we were handed our license, it was kind of anti-climactic and euphoric at the same time,” said Heger. “But we were ready, we were stocked and opened on the doors. Our first guest came peaking in the window before we’d actually turned our sign on for the first time. Turned around, we’re walking away and I ran out to the street ‘No! Don’t go!’”
The Skagway School came out on top in statewide testing for the second time in a couple years.
Josh Coughran is the school’s superintendent.
“It verifies and validates everything that we do on a daily basis with our students,” said Coughran. “The teachers in the building deserve a ton of credit for this recognition. We can’t do it without the really supportive community and also the incredibly generous support that we get from the municipality.”
This was the first year the Performance Evaluation for Alaska’s Schools was administered.
A group of students at the Skagway School traveled to the Marshall Islands to study climate change.
Teacher Kent Fielding led the group.
“When you look at places that are affected first by climate change you’re talking about Pacific island atolls and you’re also talking about Arctic places,” said Fielding. “You look at Alaska right now, this last year we have two, maybe three villages that have asked to be relocated due to increasing winter storms, decreasing winter ice and melting permafrost.”
This fall, students channeled their knowledge into a climate change conference in Skagway.
Skagway’s police chief lost his Alaska police officer certification earlier this year, after a long legal battle with the state.
The Alaska Police Standards Council revoked Ray Leggett’s certification, going against an administrative law judge’s recommendation.
Leggett spoke with KHNS in August.
“The whole thing is an amazing, in my opinion, it’s a miscarriage of justice,” said Leggett.
Following the decision, the assembly voiced support for Leggett. Tim Cochran made the motion.
“The assembly would like a motion to support Ray Leggett as chief of police in full capacity going forward, in line with the administrative judge’s ruling and evidentiary judge’s ruling against the Alaska Police Standards Commission’s complaint,” Cochran said. “And to have the manager review the job description and personnel policy for the police chief.”
A former tribal administrator of the Skagway Traditional Council signed a guilty plea admitting to embezzlement. Delia Commander was indicted by a grand jury in May. A plea deal says Commander misused more than $250,000 over four years. Her sentencing is set for January.
In August, a Unimog touring vehicle went off the road leading to the Alaska Excursions Dog Camp. Nearly 30 people were injured in the incident. Three patients were medevaced.
Skagway ivory carvers spoke out this spring, about restrictions on the industry they fear could make it to Alaska. Bruce Shindler is one of them. He told KHNS in May, his craft won’t be the same if an ivory ban makes it to the state.
“We will adapt,” said Schindler. “But it will be a shell of what we have done. And the beauty and the joy of restoring something that just had no life beforehand.”
Amid state budget cuts, the Skagway court was left without a magistrate. The former magistrate retired, and her position isn’t set to be filled right now.
Trevor Stephens is the presiding superior court judge for the First Judicial District.
“We’ll be looking at putting a judicial officer likely in Haines that would cover both Haines and Skagway,” Stephens said.
And finally, plans for a Skagway senior center moved forward this year. In 2016, voters approved a $6 million bond to support the facility. The 35 percent design drawings and cost estimates for the Skaguay Community Activity Center and Senior Housing were presented to the assembly in December.