Earlier this month, Skagway voters overwhelmingly rejected a 35-year tidelands lease between the municipality and the parent company of White Pass and Yukon Route Railroad. In a single day, 69 percent of voters threw out a lease that took years to negotiate. Now the question is, what happens next?
White Pass has leased tidelands from the municipality for more than 40 years. The new lease would have continued that relationship, but with some different terms. It also would’ve given the municipality access for the Gateway Project. The project includes clean-up of legacy contamination in the ore terminal and expansion of the existing port facilities, including a floating dock for newer, bigger cruise ships.
Gateway Project Manager Chad Gubala spoke at last week’s borough assembly meeting.
“One of the principle components of Gateway being the mitigation component, I’ll just remind everybody that that ball keeps bouncing,” Gubala said. “As much as Gateway, the project itself, may be in question, the need for mitigation is still there. It’s not going to go away until it’s dealt with.”
The Gateway Project is near the 75 percent design phase and it’s going through state and federal permitting. But since the lease was rejected, it’s unclear how the municipality can execute the project without control of the tidelands.
“As much as I think it’s good to base all of your decisions on the community here, your port is a strategic global port and it’s got impact beyond this room, most certainly,” Gubala said.
And then there’s the question of what do about the lease. Should the municipality try to go back to the negotiating table? Should Skagway wait until the current lease expires in 2023 and take control of the docks? Several members of the public have said at recent meetings that whatever happens, they want to be included.
“Try to find out what the town really thinks, and try to involve them more,” said Charles Stearns.
The assembly plans to take a step in that direction with a post-election survey asking why people voted the way they did. They hope for an independent organization, like the McDowell Group, to conduct the survey.
“The overwhelming question or the overwhelming answer we need to find out is does the community want a lease or not?” said Assemblyman Spencer Morgan.
Assembly member Steve Burnham Jr. was on the lease negotiating team. He said moving forward, the assembly should foster public involvement as much as possible.
“It’s important to try to do the correct thing this time because it’s perceived that we didn’t do the correct thing before,” Burnham said. “I feel that we always attempted to do the correct thing but obviously other people don’t agree and the majority don’t agree, so it’s important not to do it wrong again.”
Burnham has said that in retrospect, he thinks the lease would’ve been on ‘firmer ground’ if the assembly had included the public more when they were deciding on the minimum terms.
Assemblyman Dan Henry, who was also the negotiating team, says he supports public input, but he thinks it would have been inefficient to involve the public in lease discussions.
“Can you imagine a room full of people trying to discuss and give input why each every little item is wrong and good? Can you imagine it?” Henry said.
He says the public elects assembly members to immerse themselves in jobs like lease negotiations. He pointed to the long process the Skagway trapping ordinance went through as an example of how opening something to public input can be ineffective. Henry says he is not optimistic about what will happen in the aftermath of the lease rejection.
“Partnering with White Pass, as we have done for 115 years, which has turned into a pretty damn good thing, seeing that we’re deciding to sever that relationship is a very bad move,” Henry said.
He thinks the municipality won’t be able to get site control for the Gateway Project, and that Skagway will be stuck with the entire cost of remediation.
Former assembly member Gary Hanson, who was on the negotiating team, but resigned from it, has a different view.
“I’m happy. I feel vindicated,” Hanson told KHNS the day after the lease was voted down. He said Skagway should have control of its own tidelands. “I’ve always felt that when the current lease expires in 2023, it would be time for the municipality to take over that western portion of our port so that we can finally have some unfettered control of our waterfront.”
For now, the only clear ‘next step’ the assembly has decided on is to ask the public why they rejected the tidelands lease. Then they hope to tackle the big questions: How can they proceed with cleaning up the contaminated harbor? What will the town’s relationship with White Pass be like now? And who will control the tidelands?