Skagway’s cruise ship tourism will take a hit if the city doesn’t quickly renovate its port. But the company that controls much of the town’s waterfront wants an extended lease in order to make way for improvements. This conundrum stirred emotional pleas from residents and equally emotional responses from assembly members at a meeting Thursday night.
“I’m mad as hell,” said Gayla Hites.
Hites was one of several Skagway residents who expressed their distrust of White Pass and Yukon Route Railroad.
White Pass has leased a major chunk of the town’s port since the 1960s. The railroad has become a successful tourism operation. But its lease expires in about five years. And it wants reassurance that its stake in the port will continue beyond 2023.
So, White Pass has an offer for Skagway: in return for a 20-year lease extension, it will build the floating addition on the ore dock that the town desperately needs to accommodate bigger cruise ships.
“A child could hear the implicit threat: if you don’t give us a new lease now, we won’t let you have the dock expansion,” said resident Elaine Furbish.
She urged the assembly not to rush into approving a lease extension.
“People and businesses of Skagway, tell White Pass that you don’t think they deserve a new lease if they hold the ore dock expansion and thus everybody else’s profit and livelihood hostage,” Furbish said. “Tell them that if they clear the way now for the ore dock expansion, that you will support negotiating a new lease that is good for their profits and good for Skagway. And tell your assembly members that you back them on standing strong on this manufactured crisis.”
“Manufactured crisis is not accurate,” said Steve Burnham Jr.
He was not the only assembly member to emphasize how critical the loss would be if Skagway doesn’t renovate its ore dock by 2019.
Orion Hanson said it would send Skagway into a recession. He said White Pass’s lease proposal, with some tweaking, looks like a ‘pretty good deal.’
“Signing off on a recession is not something that anybody in this room wants to see happen,” Hanson said. “We have all our eggs in the cruise ship basket, we know that. That’s what our economy is. It’s one of the hardest things I’ve ever been a part of in my life.”
“I’ve spent a lot of sleepless nights on this,” said recently-appointed assembly member Monica Carlson.
Carlson had a different take than her peers. She was the most anti-lease of the group.
“There are too many questions surrounding the new lease,” Carlson said. “The city has every right to move forward with a floating dock. We need to think 20, 30, 40 years from now when our children and grandchildren are sitting at this table. Will we be true city leaders, or will we be the ones who voted for a new lease out of fear?”
Carlson pointed to a section of Skagway code that says a lessor has the right to grant easements or right-of-ways on leased land if it is in the best interest of the municipality. She said Skagway should use that right and ‘forge full speed ahead’ on ore dock improvements if White Pass doesn’t cooperate.
But Carlson was in the minority. The other assembly members leaned towards working with White Pass and negotiating some kind of lease extension. Tim Cochran listed good things the railroad has done for the community.
“It’s not just this big corporation taking, taking, taking. They do give back the community,” Cochran said. “I think if we could get around that, work with them, get the best we can for each other, get a dock in there, address the mitigation. We can do a little better on this, but I think we’re in the right direction. But we’ve got to move fast.”
The assembly scheduled a special meeting on July 12 to dig more into the details of the lease proposal.
The economic anxiety shadowing the port discussion was palpable throughout the meeting. It played into the assembly’s rejection of an ordinance that would have moved a sales tax increase toward a public vote.
The sales tax hike would fund what is currently projected to be a $17 million recreation center expansion and aquatic wellness center.
Assemblyman Cochran said the city incurring more bond debt to, in part, build a pool, would be irresponsible. Cochran added that it isn’t the city’s responsibility to teach kids to swim.