By DAN FOX
Skagway’s Borough Assembly is once more in the process of talking leases with the White Pass & Yukon Route Railroad. White Pass has come to the negotiating table with a draft proposal regarding three separate transactions: the current lease, a future lease and remediation of contamination in the Ore Terminal Basin.
The document was not initially made public after the full assembly received the proposal. The assembly had met for a special session on June 28, in which it moved into a closed-door executive session meeting to discuss the document.
Several assembly members voiced doubts about the move, with Assembly Member Steve Burnham Jr. expressing concern on how the public would view it, but ultimately a vote was taken, with Mayor Mark Schaefer breaking a tie 4-3 and taking the assembly into the executive session.
After coming out of its closed session discussion, the assembly talked about the proposal some more, with some specifics being shared in the public setting. The document was made available on the municipality’s website prior to a July 6 assembly meeting. At that same meeting, a number of residents and business owners came forward to comment on it.
Former Harbormaster Ken Russo said he didn’t see a “whole lot different” with the new proposal compared to a failed lease from 2015. The last lease proposal made its way onto a 2015 ballot, where it was defeated with 383 votes against, and 167 votes in favor. That lease included a 35-year term, and rent payments of a $250,000 per year, increasing by $25,000 every five years.
“A little shorter term, what, another half-million dollars towards the cleanup, maybe a little more money on the lease agreement?” Russo said. “It’s pretty much, to me, the same as the lease was, and the same objections apply.”
Elaine Furbish said there is nothing stopping White Pass from working with the municipality on these projects at any time.
“White Pass could easily work with the town on [a] dock expansion quickly with a lease amendment,” Furbish said. “It is a choice they make to refuse to do it without a new lease.”
Furbish also mentioned a recent press release, in which TWC Enterprises Limited – the company that owns White Pass – announced plans on June 16 to undertake a strategic review of its investment in the railroad.
According to the press release, the objective for this review is to evaluate White Pass operations. The review may also include a sale of all or portion of the business.
Wayne Selmer recalled the 1994 collapse of the Railroad Dock – an incident that caused the death of one man and forced the governor at the time to make a disaster declaration.
“But by May of next year, they had cruise ships tied up at that dock, which is the same dock that is the Railroad Dock today,” Selmer said. “White Pass has had some issues in this community over the years, but if it hadn’t been for them and their work, that would have been a very dismal summer for Skagway.”
White Pass President John Finlayson and Executive Director of Human Resources and Strategic Planning Tyler Rose addressed the assembly and gathered residents as well.
With the company’s 100-plus year history in Skagway, Rose said that both a lot of good and bad comes along with that.
“Our history is not all the positive things that we may say on the train, and we recognize that,” Rose said. “But we also feel, and I also feel personally, that what we do in this community, there are a lot of good things as well.”
The proposal is a mutually beneficial deal, according to Rose.
“We are negotiating in the best interests of our company,” Rose said. “I don’t think anyone here expects us not to.”