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)

After more than a year of stalled progress on Skagway’s waterfront, the borough assembly hopes a port consultant will move things forward. At a meeting Thursday, the assembly approved a nearly $200,000 contract for short-term planning on Skagway’s waterfront.

Last year, Skagway officials proposed a contract that would give White Pass and Yukon Route Railroad rights to the borough port property it currently leases for another 35 years.

That lease failed in a public vote.

Where should Skagway go next? There is contamination in the ore basin that needs to be cleaned up. There are bigger cruise ships on the horizon that require a larger dock. There is state grant funding on the line that expires in less than nine months.

Should Skagway continue its current relationship with White Pass, which is a huge tourism draw and major employer? Or would some other arrangement be more beneficial?

The borough assembly hopes a ‘fresh set of eyes’ can help answer those questions. That’s why the assembly authorized spending nearly $200,000 on a port consultant contract with Anchorage-based Moffatt & Nichol. Assemblyman Steve Burnham Jr. is on the steering committee that will work with the consultant.

“I think this is what we need to help move our port forward in the way that best suits Skagway,” Burnham said.

At first, Moffatt & Nichol’s price was over $400,000. But the steering committee worked with them to refine the contract. The fee is now about $197,000.

Here are some of the tasks Moffatt & Nichol will take on in the next four months or so:

One, make a plan for short-term port improvements to address immediate needs and utilize grant funding.

Two, prepare a valuation of waterfront real estate. Some Skagway residents have criticized the municipality for drawing up a lease without an assessment of the port’s value.

Three, work with the public and other stakeholders, including White Pass, to explore opportunities and challenges on the waterfront.  One open house and two community work sessions are planned. Assembly members have said public involvement is key, especially after criticism from last year’s lease, that the negotiations were not transparent enough.

Four, Moffat & Nichol will prepare a short-term plan for the waterfront and make preparations for a long-term plan.

The $200,000 price tag, though, doesn’t include long-range planning.

At the previous two assembly meetings, White Pass representatives have expressed their worry over the timeline Skagway is working with to host Breakaway-class cruise ships.

White Pass President John Finlayson said the company hasn’t heard anything from the borough since the assembly voted in July to re-engage in lease discussions with the railroad.

“I probably don’t need to talk too much about the urgency involved. I think everybody knows it’s urgent,” Finlayson. “However it’s been three months and we haven’t heard anything. So think while everybody knows it’s urgent, actions speak louder than words.”

Skagway officials hope to take action with help from the port consultant. What kind of action remains to be seen. The Moffatt & Nichol contract still needs to be reviewed by the borough attorney. At the next meeting Dec. 1, the assembly will discuss how to pay for the $200,000 contract.