By DAN FOX
Following receipt of a letter from the Holland America Group proposing an economic collaboration in Skagway’s port, the Borough Assembly has voted to suspend the recently-approved memorandum of understanding (MOU) between the municipality and the White Pass & Yukon Route Railroad.
After the assembly came out of a closed-door executive session on March 15, Assembly Member Steve Burnham Jr. motioned to have “the mayor draft a letter to White Pass & Yukon Route explaining our reasoning on effectively suspending the current MOU and tideland lease negotiation.” The motion passed 4-2, with assembly members Dan Henry and Orion Hanson against.
The motion didn’t make it immediately clear how long the suspension of the MOU would last – when asked to clarify after the meeting, Mayor Monica Carlson said “it’s to end it.”
While the topic of a new tidelands lease with White Pass has been before the assembly for a number of years – including a draft lease proposal that failed to garner a majority vote by the public in 2015 – the assembly had spent the better part of the last year reengaging the railroad on the topic.
Many lengthy public meetings were spent discussing the MOU, as well as numerous meetings between White Pass and the assembly’s appointed negotiating team, which was made up of assembly members Hanson and Tim Cochran.
“We had a fork in the road for the voters to consider, now I don’t see a path through the woods,” Hanson said in an email when asked about the March 15 vote. “I’d like to think a dock can be built before 2023. However, unless White Pass, or whoever the railroad becomes, is willing to negotiate with a possible competitor, we are in a jumbled mess. Several on the assembly think we are on a path of ascension no matter how the city plays their cards, I’m not so optimistic.”
Assembly Member David Brena said moving forward, the municipality should prepare a request for proposals (RFP) with minimum requirements.
“White Pass or the new owner can participate as can anyone else,” Brena said in an email. “A new port director could be extremely helpful in developing the overall waterfront strategy and infrastructure requirements.
“The future of tourism is extremely bright and the question arises as to what we can do between now and 2023 when the lease expires. First, several have stated that we could ‘make do’ with the existing docks by simply moving the gangways. This would be inconvenient but workable. Alternatively, we could condemn an unused portion of the tidelands through eminent domain and build a floating dock either ourselves or in partnership with a lessee. This process would take two years if White Pass opposed it and one year if they didn’t. In either case we could have a floating dock in place by 2020.”
Henry, who cast the other “no” vote on the motion, said he wanted to see the municipality take a consistent approach on the matter. If the public was able to vote on the lease in 2015, Henry said they should have the opportunity to have their say again.
“In 2015 we said the people are going to vote one-by-one on whether this is ‘yes’ or ‘no,’” Henry said. “Then, when we figure out that, okay, they voted that ‘no’ and we need to make it a new or improved agreement so we can get the access, we don’t go to the people. That’s the problem, now all the sudden, it’s the assembly’s choice.”
White Pass did not comment extensively on the matter when asked – at press time, the letter being drafted by the mayor had not been released.
“We haven’t received it [the letter] yet, and I think once we receive it there probably will be some more clarity from that point forward,” Tyler Rose, executive director of human resources and strategic planning with White Pass, said. Rose said the assembly’s motion was “obviously a bit disappointing, given the length of the process.”
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