Skagway’s most profitable economic sector, cruise ship tourism, is at risk. That was the message port consultants delivered to borough leaders last week. The consultants were hired to make a recommendation about what Skagway can do to ready its port for larger cruise ships by 2019. They’re suggesting the municipality act as soon as possible on a $14.5 million modification to the ore dock.
Skagway doesn’t have time to spare. That’s one key point from Moffatt & Nichol’s Shaun McFarlane.
“The larger ships are coming to Skagway,” McFarlane said. “And what is important to know and remember is that if you’re not able to accommodate these larger vessels, there’s not a slightly smaller vessel waiting at anchor to come in if you can’t accommodate that one. So there’s not a ‘do nothing’ scenario for Skagway that results in the same level of visitors.”
The time crunch had a strong influence on McFarlane and colleague Scott Lagueux’s recommendation.
They had to find a way for one of Skagway’s docks to accommodate larger ships in less than two years. They looked at possible renovations to the railroad dock, ferry dock and ore dock. The ore dock options rose to the top.
McFarlane’s team recommends a 50-by-175-foot floating dock be built to the north of the existing dock. It would go with a pedestrian drive-down gangway. This renovation would allow the larger vessels to tie up there.
The ore dock is already used for cruise ships. And it’s caused concern for residents to have industrial and tourism uses so close. Visitors coming off the ship have to walk under the ore loader. McFarlane said that is a downside.
“It’s not an ideal place to bring people off in the middle of a facility, with the ore operations,” McFarlane said. “It’s difficult to separate the industrial and the tourism operations there.”
Another potential obstacle is long-standing contamination in the ore basin. But McFarlane said environmental regulators told his team that the work should be able to happen despite the contamination.
But there’s a catch: Skagway doesn’t have full control of its port. It leases much of the tidelands to the largest tourism attraction in town: the White Pass and Yukon Route Railroad.
And that is why progress on the waterfront has stalled for years. In 2015, voters rejected a 35-year lease extension with White Pass that would have given the municipality access to complete a list of port renovations.
In the about two years since then, port progress has been in limbo. That’s why the borough hired these consultants.
In order to construct the $14.5 million ore dock modification, the municipality will need White Pass’s cooperation. Although the municipality owns the facility, it’s part of the railroad’s lease, which doesn’t expire until 2023.
“We believe that it is in the best interest of White Pass to operate in good faith to allow that access to occur without any other means of agreements or requirements,’ said Lagueux. “We believe that this improvement is beneficial to all. So we’re hopeful this allows the two parties to come together.”
But Skagway Port Commission Chair Tim Bourcy asked, what if the municipality doesn’t find a path forward with White Pass?
“Where we are now is we have all our eggs in a basket, and we’re hoping we’re gonna get there, and I’m hoping we get there as well,” Bourcy said. “But I don’t see the fallback position on this.”
Bourcy said he would like to see a backup scenario in Moffatt & Nichol’s final report.
There is some indication that White Pass is ready to get moving on some kind of plan. Company president John Finlayson wrote a brief letter to the mayor and assembly last week. He says White Pass is working on its own proposal to address waterfront issues, which they plan to present to a borough negotiating team soon.
Whether that plan is in line with Moffatt & Nichol’s recommendation remains to be seen.
The clock is ticking. McFarlane and Lagueux said in order to complete the ore dock addition in time for larger ships, the borough needs to start permitting and design work by late summer or early fall. Even then, it’s going to be tight.
Now it’s up to town officials to decide whether they want to move forward with the ore dock plan.
View Moffatt & Nichol’s draft short-term recommendation presentation here.