The Skagway Assembly will meet outside of city hall chambers this weekend. The group is holding a retreat to help find a solution for the future of the waterfront. At a regular assembly meeting Thursday night, one thing was made clear: Skagway needs to move forward – with or without a new tidelands lease with White Pass and Yukon Route Railroad. The assembly retreat is open to the public. It’s scheduled for Saturday, November 4, at 7 p.m. at the new public safety facility.
Skagway and White Pass are trying to come to an agreement on waterfront land use.
This summer, the municipality and the railroad began work on a memorandum of understanding that would introduce a new, 15-year, lease for the railroad. It would also make way for the municipality and railroad to move forward with port renovations.
The assembly didn’t dig further into a draft memorandum at Thursday’s meeting, saving that for Saturday’s retreat.
But the waterfront lease was still a topic of conversation.
Tim Bourcy chairs the Port Commission. He said the assembly needs to make a decision on whether to move forward with the MOU. And, he said something needs to happen this year.
“We have now four administrations, a decade of work, and we have nothing to show for it,” said Bourcy. “I’m not saying the work that has been done has been done without accomplishing things but it is a complete failure on the part of the municipality and the port stakeholders.”
Assemblyman Tim Cochran agreed that the group needs to move quickly.
“We need to do something and it’s critical for our future economy,” said Cochran. “So we need to get this rolling and get something to White Pass as soon as possible.”
Resident Beth Smith said the livelihood of community members is at stake.
Skagway needs a new floating dock to accommodate larger cruise ships in coming years. Because of the current lease, they can’t build without White Pass’s cooperation. White Pass wants a new lease in exchange.
Smith urged the assembly to support a new lease with the railroad to pick up after the current agreement ends in 2023.
“I think it’s an enormous gamble to take with every single person’s livelihood in town,” said Smith. “If we don’t get those ships in 2019, it could be disastrous for years and years to come.”
White Pass official Tyler Rose said it’s important voters get a chance to weigh in on the new agreement.
“It is a big decision,” said Rose. “There’s a lot of folks who are concerned and have come forward with this. It does affect the whole community and getting to a vote is important, one way or the other so we can learn. I think with the prior failed lease there were a lot of parts that people didn’t like. One of the sentiments was ‘well they’ll come back with a better deal.’”
Rose said he thinks they now have a better deal.
Ken Russo said when voters rejected a 35-year tidelands lease extension in 2015, it was unclear what residents wanted instead.
“If the sentiment in the community is that they don’t want the lease at all, no matter what you do up there and for how long you do it, you put it to the voters and it’s going to get shut down,” said Russo.
White Pass’s Rose said the railroad is planning some port improvements to help facilitate bigger ships in 2019.
Mayor Monica Carlson pointed out those fixes would buy Skagway some time to make more extensive renovations.
At a meeting in September, Carlson proposed halting negotiations with White Pass, before suggesting the assembly retreat to address the lease proposal.
Editor’s note: This story was edited to reflect the fact that White Pass and Yukon Route Railroad wants a new lease, rather than a lease extension as originally reported.