By Melinda Munson

The Skagway Borough Assembly Committee of the Whole met Feb. 28 to discuss long-term planning for Garden City RV Park, purchased in 2013 from the Juneau Archdiocese for $1.7 million. Formerly, the land housed the St. Pius X Mission, a boarding school for mostly Alaska Natives. 

In September 2020, Skagway Traditional Council (STC) recommended the municipality conduct an archeological survey of the grounds before selling the lots, in response to hundreds of dead bodies being discovered at former mission school sites across Canada and the U.S.

Mayor Andrew Cremata started the meeting with comments regarding the upcoming archeological assessment of the property.

“So can we all agree that the reason we’re using ground penetrating radar is because we have some concern that it’s possible, however unlikely, that children that were murdered are buried under the ground there?” he asked. 

“…Where we’ve set the bar on how we’re going to proceed, is whether or not we’re going to find dead children’s bones buried under the ground there. That’s where we set the bar. So what I’m going to ask you … is it possible that we can set the bar a little bit higher than dead children’s bones?”

Cremata suggested setting the bar at the loss of language, telling the story of a Skagway elder who was beaten at Pius X for speaking his native tongue.

“I would argue that the goal was to eradicate their language,” Cremata said. “…Language is what makes us who we are. It is what makes our families, it is what constructs our culture. It is what made it possible to have a community and it’s what makes it possible to have a country – the language is everything…”

The mayor also mentioned documentation of sexual abuse at the school as well as the possability that STC might have had a legal right to the land.

“I would hope we could all agree that there’s definitely a scar that still exists there, even though the building is firmly buried underground, along with whatever else may or may not be there,” he said.

Cremata recommended the community consider gifting half of Garden City, including the portion that held Pius X before it burned down, to STC, a sovereign tribal government.

During the meeting, two assembly members expressed support for the idea, Reba Hylton and Dustin Stone.

“…I think we should ask the Catholic Church to give us half of that money back. They should be paying for that. We wrote them a $25,000 check in the last check run. Give that back, please. We want to do what’s right, they should do what’s right as well,” she said. 

Assemblymember Orion Hanson was not in complete agreement with Cremata’s suggestion.

“I don’t feel comfortable in a municipal asset, where 95% of people are not of indigenous heritage, of giving half of that away. But I could see some lots going towards that,” he said.

As the meeting continued, assembly members discussed if Garden City should be sold for housing lots, or upgraded into a “world class” RV park.

Assemblymember Sam Bass was adamant that housing took priority over the financial benefits from RV visitors.

“…Why wait, why keep running an RV park at all? I would fast track this and I would try to have these lots up for sale by fall,” he said.

And later, “I don’t see us as being an RV community, I see us being a tourist community that has a big housing issue that needs to get resolved.” He suggested a possible mixture of single family lots for first time/low income buyers and high density housing.

The assembly discussed what kinds of restrictions could be placed on the land to ensure that first time buyers were prioritized and if young families could even afford to buy following a pandemic and how to avoid saturating the market.

Hylton and Stone were in favor of an RV park.

“We’ve seen that our cruise ship based economy is not bulletproof. And we’ve discussed over and over that we need to diversify our economy …  And so if we want to diversify our economy, we have to diversify our tourism. I always thought putting an RV park out across the bridge was a great idea, but that sort of defeats the purpose of bringing tourists into town,” Stone said. 

Assemblymember Deb Potter was concerned about losing seasonal housing. 

“Let’s say if we do have a world class RV park, which I’m not opposed to. What is the point if there are no employees to provide the services? As a former business owner, we were not always able to provide housing and that put us in a situation where … we had to hire some very questionable, questionable people, because somewhere, somehow they had a place to live in. It didn’t always make for the best customer service providers,” Potter said.

Hanson, one of the longest serving assembly members at nearly six years, reminded the group of the general community vision for the land.

“Prior to the pandemic, I think the plan had always been to develop water and sewer across the bridge, and move the RV park and sell the lots off residentially; that was a pretty consistent vision,” he said.

“…I could be very easily convinced that Garden City should be an RV park going forward, if we keep in mind that we still need to run water and sewer across the bridge, because that’s where the greatest availability of flat land is in Skagway,” Orion added.

Stone said he felt “the real housing crisis in this town is we don’t have anywhere to house people that come here to work and support our economy all summer. So I think it’s a little shortsighted to think that just selling lots for people to build brand new homes on is going to solve the housing crisis here.”

When the issue of high-density housing was brought up, Hanson suggested residents “go up to 20th and Main and check it out. It’s big. And that’s about the maximum you can build. So, when you think about high density housing, if you think that’s the answer, take a look at it.” 

Hylton said, “Civic Affairs is going to be addressing some housing issues when it comes to density and some other areas that we can improve so we can have more housing in this community. Because there’s plenty of it available. It’s just we’re not utilizing it properly.”

All assembly members were in agreement that running sewer and water across the bridge was a priority, regardless of the decisions made about Garden City. Borough Manager Brad Ryan estimated the infrastructure will cost around $10 million. There is currently a grant application out for the project.

No public comment was scheduled into the meeting for time purposes. Cremata asked that citizens with ideas and concerns talk to himself and assembly members and submit letters to the assembly.

This season, Garden City will function as an RV park with no sewer or water hook-ups, due to aging infrastructure. It cannot serve as employee housing as municipal code requires sewer/water for long term RV habitation. However, Resolution 29-21R allows homeowners to rent out permitted RV spots on their private land from April through October. The resolution sunsets May 1, 2024.