By Melinda Munson
In a meeting punctuated with passionate debate, the Borough Assembly voted four to two against Skagway Normal Operations for Wintertime (SNOW) on Sept. 17. The stymied grant program would have awarded $300,000 to year-round businesses.
With individual CARES payments set to end in December, many staple businesses who operate during the winter weren’t sure they could afford to stay open year-round after this summer’s dismal tourist season.
The Finance Committee crafted SNOW, 20-39R, “in hopes of keeping them (Skagway residents) both mentally and physically healthy during the long winter months…” in response to the financial effects of COVID-19.
Tier one businesses, which include food service and grocery establishments, would have each received a maximum of $25,000.
Tier two businesses, which include retail, fuel, salons and bars, could have qualified for $6,500 per business.
Assemblymember Dustin Stone proposed an amendment mandating that businesses who accept money from SNOW require all employees to wear cloth face coverings while indoors and outside when social distancing isn’t possible. The amendment passed unanimously.
In a letter to the assembly dated Sept. 14, The Skagway News asked to be included in tier two funding, even though they don’t have a traditional storefront.
“During March’s shelter-in-place order, we were deemed essential. We believe we continue to be essential. The newspaper has served the Skagway community year-round for over 40 years. Continuing that tradition will contribute to the grant program’s goals: mental and physical health,” the letter stated.
Assemblymember Orion Hanson moved to include “newspaper” in tier two. Hanson, Dan Henry and Stone voted in favor of the amendment. Jay Burnham, Steve Burnham and Dave Brena voted no.
Mayor Cremtata broke the tie with an affirmative vote, describing newspapers as “an extremely unique category” and a “necessary year-round business.”
Brena disagreed with the amendment.
“I’m not sure where we’re going here, putting in a single business that doesn’t have a storefront and now it seems, excluding other businesses in the community that do have storefronts but that weren’t specifically mentioned,” Brena said.
Based on Brena’s comments, Henry moved to reconsider the amendment.
“I guess I would argue that the entire thing is exclusionary to begin with because it has to be … I think there are a lot of businesses at this table that are excluded but I will argue that a newspaper is a really essential part of society,” Stone said.
Hanson stated that fuel stations and salons have an “arguable storefront.”
“Generally, we were trying to keep the downtown open,” said Steve Burnham, finance chair. He explained the resolution included fuel stations out of necessity and salons to keep a “semblance of normalcy.”
He pointed out the municipality has another grant program, open to all Skagway businesses. Burnham reiterated that the newspaper lacks a storefront and therefore did not qualify for SNOW.
“I think there’s something inherently wrong with this program if we say that bars are more deserving of money than the newspaper,” Stone said.
In an amendment to the amendment, Hanson moved to add newspapers and salons to the eligibility paragraph that exempts fuel suppliers from maintaining a storefront. Hanson, Henry and Stone voted yes while Brena, Jay Burnham and Steve Burnham voted no. The mayor added a fourth yes vote, passing the amended amendment.
“This program is becoming more convoluted and exclusionary … I do not like the direction this program is going,” Brena said before the final vote.
Ultimately, Brena, Henry, Jay Burnham and Steve Burnham voted against the grant proposal while Hanson and Stone voted for 20-39R.
At the close of the meeting, Cremata recommended the Finance Committee break the proposal into three grants, suggesting the first two grants could pass quickly.
Grant one would include food service and groceries, grant two would cover retail and bars and grant three could include fuel stations, newspapers and salons.
The next Finance Meeting is Sept. 30 at 7 p.m. followed by the Borough Assembly on Oct.1, also at 7 p.m.