Three cruise ship docked in Skagway's port in Sept. 2016. (Emily Files)

Three cruise ship docked in Skagway’s port in Sept. 2016. (Emily Files)

The first phase of Skagway’s most recent round of port planning is nearing completion. Consultants hired to help move along renovations were back in town last month. As they laid out short-term options for port improvements, the conversation centered on the cruise industry.

The municipality hired consultants Moffat & Nichol back in October, to help find a solution to stalled progress on the port.

Work on the waterfront has been in limbo since voters rejected a tidelands lease with White Pass and Yukon Route Railroad in 2015.

Since then, the consultants have held three meetings to engage the public in the planning process. Sean McFarlane is leading the Moffat & Nichol team. At the last meeting, he said there are a lot of challenges associated with the Skagway project. He said the thought of bringing larger cruise ships into the port is a ‘daunting task.’

“You’ve got a very constricted, very entangled harbor with some existing conflicts and demands,” said McFarlane. “And contamination issues and ownership and lease issues. And all of these are kind of bubbling to the surface at the same time. And now you’re trying to introduce some new, larger revenue sources and demands on it.”

Throughout the consulting process, there’s been a big focus on cruise ships, a major user of Skagway’s port. For its size, Skagway is able to accommodate a lot of ships and a lot of people. But, the consultants stressed that the ships are only getting bigger. McFarlane said Skagway has to grow with the industry.

“Your status quo, which you might think ‘hey we’re good, we’re good right where we are,’ the do nothing approach might actually cause a lot of attrition and cause you to lose cruise passengers pretty quickly and precipitously over time,” said McFarlane.

And, he said they have to keep up with other cruise ship destinations in the region.

“Ketchikan, Juneau, Skagway should and need to follow in lock step to continue to be the three crown jewels in these facilities,” said McFarlane.

Right now, the consultants are trying to come up with the best short-term goal for the port. They presented a few alternatives to accommodate larger cruise ships.

Two of the options deal mainly with the White Pass dock. Both involve modifying the rail dock. One adds dredging next to the small boat harbor and along the shore.

The other alternatives focus on the opposite side of the waterfront, at the ore dock. One would involve a new outer float, allowing for additional passenger access. The other suggestion would extend the ore dock inland.

Legacy contamination at the ore dock is a big challenge in the port improvement process. Assemblyman Orion Hanson asked how the two options involving the ore dock could be carried out without getting into that contamination.

But the consultants said it’s possible the harbor wouldn’t need to be deepened or dredged to accommodate the bigger cruise ships at that dock.
Using public feedback, the consultants should have a short-term waterfront plan prepared by the end of the month. They’ll be back June 15 to present the results.

Tim Cochran is the assembly liaison to the port commission. He says the process is moving along, but there needs to be more conversation with stakeholders. He is also skeptical about being able to make the improvements laid out by the consultants with the about $8 million in state grants Skagway has in hand.

The team at Moffat & Nichol is also preparing an economic analysis, port governance study, and an environmental and regulatory compliance study. The assembly approved a $265,000 contract amendment for that work last month.