By Melinda Munson

The assembly debated for nearly an hour on Nov. 18, then voted 4-2 to approve a $300,000-$450,000 plan to refurbish Garden City RV Park (GCRV), a temporary measure to entice independent travellers, beginning 2022. 

In a Nov. 17 memo, Manager Brad Ryan wrote, “…I understand there has been considerable discussion about the future of the GCRV, including proposals to sell all the lots, build a senior center and maintain it as a RV park. In my opinion, those plans need more work and until that is complete, the MOS should use the park to attract independent travellers.”

The updates include installing power to the inside stalls of the park, adding a dump station and a water fill station, and grading and landscaping the interior. Most of the work would be done by Public Works employees, with the exception of the electrical which would be contracted out. An entrance to the park from Main Street would be funded by the Department of Transportation and Public Facilities to deter traffic from State Street during construction. 

“We of course will have to work with the Skagway Traditional Council (STC) before we can do any of that there, to make sure we’re not disrupting any cultural resources,” Ryan said. 

Pius X Mission School, once located at the current GCRV, operated from 1933-1959 as a Catholic boarding school for primarily Native Alaskans. In October, the municipality agreed to work with STC to conduct an archeological and radar assessment of the grounds.

Skagway resident Jen Thuss testified she was concerned the GCRV plan didn’t guarantee housing for seasonal workers. 

“Skagway has nascent tour operators in businesses struggling to hang on, who desperately need that space for the only housing they can hope to provide for their employees,” she said. 

“Businesses need employees and employees need housing.”

Assemblymember Sam Bass didn’t think the investment was worth the return, pointing out that with current RV nightly rates, it would take about three years for the city’s investment in the park to pan out.

“I do not think that Skagway has an RV crisis,” Bass said. “I think Skagway has a housing crisis. And that crisis is going to continue to plague this town if we don’t take action. Our housing crisis is what stops people from moving here. It’s the housing crisis that results in people living in substandard and unsafe places. It’s the housing crisis that results in higher cost of labor and services. It’s the housing crisis that causes people to leave town who would otherwise stay here year round. We need to start now and develop Garden City into lots that can become homes for first time homebuyers, seasonal workers and year-round citizens.”

Bass reminded the assembly that the 2030 Comprehensive Plan showed that housing was the preferred use of GCRV. He recommended putting RV campgrounds past the Skagway River Bridge. 

Assemblymember Reba Hylton disagreed with relocating RV traffic out of the heart of Skagway.

“…If you’re putting them across the bridge, we all know that that’s far when you’re talking about going out to the Red Onion at night … We want those kinds of people in town. So the further we put them out, the less money they’re going to spend…” she said. 

Assembly members in favor of keeping RV tourists in town suggested locating seasonal housing across the bridge. Assemblymember Orion Hanson stressed he’d like to see trailer housing versus RV housing for seasonal workers.

Mayor Andrew Cremata, who doesn’t vote unless there is a tie, was in support of the GCRV fixes.

“So this is definitely a bandaid, but we don’t know what we’re going to get as far as cruise ships next year nor within the next five years. So independent travelers could be our saving grace. And I think one of the mistakes we often make is we look at the numbers that the municipality is bringing in. This is not a business venture. Ultimately, the goal of operating this RV park in the short term is to bring in independent travelers who spend 100 times the amount of money that cruise ship passengers spend during their stay. And so that is a number that cannot be expressed at the assembly table just based off the profit and loss statements of the RV park,” he said.

Hanson, a contractor, didn’t like the idea of making changes to the park with no clear path forward.

“I don’t believe we should be making a vote here with the dissension I’m hearing at the table tonight, because I think we have to have a better long-term vision of where we’re going. It needs to be a little more comprehensive than doing something piecemeal,” he said.

Assemblymember Dustin Stone didn’t want to go another year with an unused resource. 

“If that park just sits empty for another season, that is lost revenue for businesses downtown that have already had two years of no revenue, essentially. So I think we owe it to the citizens of the municipality to do something about this rather than just continuing to debate and debate and debate and do nothing and let the problem get worse,” he said.

Assemblymember Jay Burnham broke down what he sees as the role of government and finance.

“As far as the waste of money, or the not making our money back, that’s what government does. We don’t make our money back. I haven’t heard of the returns from the school, or the rec-center … we’re not business. We’re supposed to waste all of our money on things that are good for the community,” he said.

The assembly agreed to schedule a work session to discuss the details of revamping GCRV. Bass and Orion were the two nay votes.