By Leigh Armstrong
The three candidates for two seats on the borough assembly and Mayor Andrew Cremata, who is running unopposed, all said advocating for adequate ferry service to the community is a priority. That would mean more lobbying of state officials, educating them of the importance to the community, the candidates said at a public forum Sept. 23.
“I shudder to think how the school systems and extracurricular systems can function at all without (the ferry),” said Orion Hanson, who is seeking reelection to the assembly.
Assembly candidate Dustin Stone recommended that residents advocate for ferry service. The first-time candidate said Skagway’s voice can have an impact. “If I’m elected to the assembly, I can promise to be the thorn in the side of legislators who decide our ferry service.”
Candidate Samuel Bass pushed for lobbying state government on the importance of the ferry system. He said it’s especially important to maintain service from Juneau to Skagway, since people from Juneau could drive out of Skagway.
The assembly candidates and the mayor met and answered questions from the public and the news media at a public forum on Sept. 23.
The election is Oct. 1, with the polls open 7 a.m. to 8 p.m. at city hall. Voters who will be out of town on election day can vote early, from 8 a.m. to 5 p.m. weekdays at city hall through Sept. 30.
Hanson took the opportunity at the forum to talk about a municipal ferry authority, which Skagway is exploring, but stressed that should be considered a secondary plan to a state-run system.
Cremata also said Skagway needs to be prepared for changes in the ferry system, and needs to be realistic and look at all possible options. “The next step is figure out if it’s financially possible to manage a (municipal) ferry authority, run a boat, and have it still be affordable to go from Point A to Point B. It probably won’t be. That’s an honest answer,” Cremata said.
The mayor also shared with residents his views and reaffirmed his mission. “Everyone knows what I’m about, hopefully,” he said. “I’m going to continue do exactly what I’ve been doing for the past six months.”
All of the candidates agreed that complete remediation couldn’t happen at the ore basin without working to clean up spills underneath the dock. “I feel that with the contamination of the ore basin, the responsibility for cleaning it up falls on the parties responsible for contaminating it,” Stone said.
Cremata said White Pass & Yukon Route has presented a remediation plan to the Department of Environmental Conservation, which state and municipal officials will review.
Bass said he wants to make sure that WP&YR follows through with the cleanup. “I think it is the job now of the city and the assembly to continue to push to make sure that (WP&YR) doesn’t just talk the talk, but walks the walk,” he said.
With the increasing number of visitors to town, Hanson called for a move forward in upgrading Skagway’s infrastructure to include more parking, and improvements to the incinerator and sewage treatment system. He did question whether businesses are able to handle the growth in tourism, as he’s heard that some didn’t benefit from the increase in passengers.
“I’m not going to put a cap on it and I’m not going to say a number, but there is a limit and we may be there until we can catch up with our infrastructure,” Hanson said.
Stone cited the law of diminishing returns and the municipality was already noticing the impacts. To help reduce that, he agreed with Hanson that the town needs to look toward infrastructure.
“If our town is a product, we need to refine that product,” Stone said.
Bass said he would hate to see people not come to Skagway, and the municipality is far away from needing to turn away people.
Stone said the municipality needs to consider more affordable housing. Citing his first winter in Skagway, he said he spent $700 on a studio and the common price for a one-bedroom apartment is $1,000 a month. “It’s really difficult to eke out a living and pay for housing,” Stone said.
Bass said the municipality needs to look at increasing lease revenue from its docks. With the extra revenue, he said the municipality could look at building more housing, adding a poll to the recreation center and other improvements.
Hanson also said the municipality needs to focus on housing. “The people who do want to be here year-round, if they don’t have an opportunity to buy in, sooner or later they’ll get frustrated and leave. I think we all know people that’s happened to,” he said.
In a question submitted from multiple residents, the candidates were asked if they thought the assembly made a mistake in rejecting a higher appraisal for setting the annual fee the municipality receives for leasing property to WP&YR. Several residents noted that the state had recently received bids significantly higher than expected when Norwegian Cruise Lines offered $20 million to buy 2.9 acres of downtown waterfront property in Juneau.
Hanson said he didn’t vote for the accepting the higher appraisal of Skagway’s waterfront property because he thought the municipality shouldn’t raise the rent in the middle of a contract. He also said that had the assembly approved the appraisal, it most likely would have gone to court.
“We’re talking three and a half years at this point. At the end of a 55-year lease,” Hanson said. The lease expires in 2023. A new appraisal and lease fee would apply only until then.
Bass said the bids on the Juneau property show just how valuable waterfront acreage can be in Southeast Alaska.
“I do know the Integra appraisal, the higher appraisal, seemed much more rational for what that (Skagway) land is valued at,” Bass said. The assembly has not accepted the higher appraisal by Integra Realty Resources, a nationwide firm, nor has it accepted a lower appraisal by the borough’s long-time contract assessor, Horan & Co., of Sitka.
Cremata said the current lease fee of $127,000 a year is low for what waterfront is worth, but noted that WP&YR is the biggest employer in town. “Why would we want to jeopardize a positive relationship with White Pass over an issue that can be solved by sitting down at a table and hammering out some details,” the mayor said.
For the full recording the of public forum, visit khns.org/2019-skagway-candidate-forum.