By Melinda Munson

Both Borough Manager Brad Ryan and Port Director Cody Jennings advised the assembly at the Oct. 28 Special Meeting that despite a strong start, the 2023 Alternative Mooring Project was not ship shape. The plan was designed to allow a larger vessel at Ore Dock to compensate for the loss of large ships docking at Railroad Dock due to landslides.

“We went through six days of simulation with all the cruise lines,” Jennings said. “And during the simulation, it seemed like this was a very doable plan. It was quite a surprise on Monday … the meeting was abruptly cut short. They [cruise lines] didn’t want to sign off necessarily on the simulation – they had other concerns,” Jennings said. 

The concerns included close proximity to ships berthing at Broadway Dock and requests for dolphins further south – first 75 feet, then an additional 132 feet.

“I would say it’s not an impossibility with all the cruise lines, but Royal Caribbean is saying no, the Norwegian has very tight criteria on how they would come in. And Holland America has tight criteria…” Ryan said.

“I just feel like we don’t have the commitment from the cruise lines to do this,” Jennings said. 

Ryan said that while it might be possible to get the necessary permits and pilings for the 2023 plan, “whether we actually get it all in place before the spring is a bit of a wild card.” He cited the potential of the project being shut down if marine mammals appear.

“There can’t be a marine mammal around within a mile of the project,” he said.

Jennings raised the concern that if construction hits a snag, the mooring plan might make Ore Dock unusable for any cruise ships in 2023.

“If we move forward, and that dock isn’t ready, we may have to push a ship off that dock entirely because of the state that the dock construction is in,” she said.

The cost of the Alternative Mooring Project is projected at $15.4 million, including the addition of one dolphin 75 feet further south, which upped the price by $4.4 million. Of the 15.4 million, an estimated $2 million “would not be utilized” for the future Ore Dock build,” Ryan said.

“…my recommendation is leave it like it is,” Ryan advised. He suggested focusing on the rockslide mitigation at Railroad Dock, which potentially could allow two ships to tender, with a third ship at Broadway Dock and a fourth ship at Ore Dock. 

However, the lack of berthings for larger ships was an issue for many assembly members. Railroad is currently the only dock that can accommodate bigger vessels.

Mike Healy, owner of Skagway Brewing Company, testified how important the larger ships are to his company and other business owners.

“…when we get one of those bigger ships into town, our business increases between 25 and 30%,” Healy said. “And that is significant. That is the difference between us cutting people after five or six hours, and us cutting people after eight or nine hours.”

He noted that when a large ship comes to town, it pushes foot traffic further north to businesses that are in less prime locations.

“And I can tell you that without those bigger ships, I don’t know how we will make it,” Healy said. “It’s been a really rough couple of years during the pandemic, obviously.” 

He added that Skagway has a reputation in Southeast for “not getting anything done.” Healy said his bank will not lend money until they “see a concrete plan from the municipality moving forward.”

Assemblymember Orion Hanson expressed that the 2023 plan was a small gamble.

“I say, you know, $4.4 million is not a huge risk, in my opinion, because I think it enhances the multiple operations we’re trying to have at a mixed use dock.”

Hanson felt the alternative mooring project should proceed.

“I personally feel that we need to be assertive,” he said.  “And we need to be expedient. And we need to do this. And it’s four and a half million dollars in addition. And I think it has long-term benefit for the multi use of the port, particularly for the industrial users. I think it actually sends the message that we’re doing something proactive, we’re not sitting on our thumbs. We are actively courting our market while we’re losing ships all across Southeast Alaska.”

Assemblymember Reba Hylton agreed. 

“I do believe in progress and I do believe we move forward,” Hylton said. “I do want to make sure that it doesn’t interfere with our cruise season next year at all. Should things run late, we put it on pause … This mooring plan, it’s not going to solve our problems but it does send a really good message that if you build it they will come.”

The assembly voted unanimously to approve $3.4 million for pilings to continue the project. Contractor bids were due Nov. 10. The assembly can review those bids and adjust their decision accordingly. If the alternative mooring plan is discontinued, the pilings can be stored and used for the permanent Ore Dock project.