Cruise ships docked in Skagway. (JP Morgan/Creative Commons)

Cruise ships docked in Skagway. (JP Morgan/Creative Commons)

Without control of key areas of its port, how can Skagway move forward on vital improvements? That’s the question the borough assembly and port commission discussed at a joint meeting last week.

Since voters rejected a tidelands lease between Skagway and White Pass and Yukon Route Railroad last fall, the municipality hasn’t made much progress toward its goal of cleaning up and renovating the port.

A bigger class of cruise ships is coming to Alaska waters in 2017. Seven million dollars in state funding awarded for port renovations is set to expire in about a year. At Tuesday’s meeting, person after person said Skagway is falling behind.

“Everybody else is improving their ports and here we sit,” said Mayor Mark Schaefer.

“I don’t want to see us get behind some of the other communities,” said Assembly member Spencer Morgan.

“The clock [is] running out fast,” said port commissioner Paul Reichert.

How can Skagway clean up legacy contamination in the ore basin and build a floating dock to accommodate Breakaway-class cruise ships? It’s tricky, because White Pass has a lease on much of the tidelands, until 2023.

“To do a floating dock at the ore terminal, we need access,” said Assemblyman Dan Henry. “We have to go to White Pass for access. To do the cleanup, which we want to do, we need access.”

Skagway leaders were exploring the idea of building a joint ferry/cruise ship floating dock with help from the state. But that option is off the table. Henry said the two choices left are to engage with White Pass, or wait until the lease expires in seven years.

“There isn’t another alternative,” Henry said. “This isn’t a real complex situation.”

Assemblyman Steve Burnham Jr. said the municipality is ‘penholed’ into re-negotiating with the railroad.

“It’s extremely difficult to say it like that because of how badly the lease failed,” he said.

Burnham said before, the assembly failed to explain the lease properly to the public and give people time to absorb it. He said if they’re going to do this again, the process has to be more transparent.

Mayor Schaefer said he’s skeptical they can re-engage with White Pass and other port stakeholders and build a floating dock all in the one-year deadline the $7 million in state funding hinges on.

“I don’t think we can get it done,” Schaefer said. “But we certainly aren’t going to quit trying.”

Port commissioner Reichert agreed.  He said the municipality needs to hire a maritime planner.

“I do think we need some outside help. I don’t know why we’ve been dragging our feet on it but I’d really like us to more forward.”

That idea is scheduled for discussion at this Thursday’s assembly meeting. The agenda includes a draft request for proposals for a maritime planner.

The assembly will also have a larger discussion about what to do next in the quest to make progress at the port. Schaefer said the loss Skagway will suffer if it can’t welcome bigger cruise ships in 2017 motivates him to keep trying.