Transport Cruises

Alaskan Community Torn Apart Over a Cruise Ship Dock

Apr 21, 2014 4:00 am

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The best way to see Alaska is by ship, which makes small battles like this much bigger.

— Jason Clampet

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Roger Mommaerts  / Flickr

The Icy Strait Point complex for cruise ships. Roger Mommaerts / Flickr


They have the same goal but different ideas about how to get there.

In Hoonah, the debate over a cruise ship dock has turned family members against each other in an argument about who will benefit from the millions of dollars spent by cruise tourists each year.

Huna Totem Corporation and some Hoonah residents want a cruise ship dock at Point Sophia, where Huna Totem has a complex of shops, restaurants, and a base for activities called Icy Strait Point.

Other residents want it at Shaman Point, which is on city property closer to town and businesses unaffiliated with Huna Totem.

Earlier this year, Mayor Seferino “Nino” Villareal vetoed a proposal to withdraw city support of the Shaman Point site. The city council successfully pushed to override that veto.

City councilman Bob Starbard, who led the push in favor of Icy Strait Point, said he preferred not to look at the issue as “one versus the other.”

“The issue for us – myself and others – was that the dock be built,” he said. “Each of the sites has its deficits. Each of the sites has its benefits … the actions I proposed, the ultimately the city council agreed to, was to build it where the cruise lines said they would dock. That’s about as simple as I can lay it out.”

Vice mayor Mary Erickson, who voted against the veto override, said she feels a location at Icy Strait Point takes something away from Hoonah residents. The winter weather at the exposed point means the dock will either have to be moved after every tourist season, or residents won’t be able to use it then, she said.

“I’m all for tourism,” she said. “We’re all Huna Totem shareholders. But for them to try to take something away from the community to benefit them is wrong. This was meant for the whole community, not a couple hundred people.”

Icy Strait or Shaman Point?

Hoonah residents have been waiting a long time for their new dock.

A state grant for the project has been frozen twice; the debates have taken so long that the state has already taken $2 million from the project in order to spend it elsewhere.

The state “multi-use deep water marine berthing facility project” grant, to be administered through the city of Hoonah, was first granted years ago. Then-Mayor Alf R. “Windy” Skaflestad set the city’s goals in a 2011 letter: “The City of Hoonah will provide a public dock, specifically a deep water berthing facility, in Hoonah, which will allow for a variety of uses on a year-round basis, where such uses will provide economic benefits to the residents of Hoonah and the region.”

That letter didn’t name a site; Skaflestad asked the city council to “keep focused on our goals and objectives” while making a decision on location.

Mary Erickson said she’s been “singing the same song” for years.

“We’ve been singing the same song from day one, and our tune has not changed,” she said. “This is public money.”

Tourists aren’t new to Hoonah. They’ve been visiting for years. After the turn of the century, however, the pace of business quickened.

In 2001, Huna Totem broke ground at Icy Strait Point and began advertising it as a destination. Cruise ships started frequenting the community of 750 people.

The original Icy Strait Point plan, said Huna Totem Corporation President and CEO Larry Gaffaney, called for construction of a pier in 2003 or 2004.

“This was our tenth 2004,” he said.

Icy Strait Point is about 1.5 miles up an oceanside road from downtown Hoonah. About 1,000 feet before it arrives at ISP, the road runs past Shaman Point, where cruise ships currently anchor and send passengers ashore by tender. The tenders run directly to ISP.

In 2012, the Alaska Department of Commerce, Community and Economic Development froze funding for the pier because a cruise line objected to the city-owned site at Shaman Point. Then, things got complicated.

The letter also said that site 1 – at ISP – would not be feasible “due to local environmental conditions.”

That’s something Erickson said she worries about.

“Take a look at what happened in Gustavus,” she said.

In January, a series of winter storms battered the breakwater in the community that serves Glacier Bay National Park. The breakwater, built in 2010, broke under the strain, limiting its ability to protect the town’s pier.

Villareal has said it is “highly unlikely” that Hoonah residents will be able to use the dock year-round at the ISP location. When winter storms move in, the site is too exposed.

Starbard said the dock might be moved in the winter but that hasn’t yet been determined.

Gaffaney said a dock built at ISP would operate year-round.

In a Sept. 2011 letter cited by the state when it froze funding, Craig Milan, a senior vice president for Royal Caribbean Cruises Ltd., was straightforward about his company’s preference: “We do not see any advantages to locating a cruise ship dock anywhere other than at Icy Strait Point,” he wrote. “The Shaman Point location under consideration provides no benefit to us or our passengers.”

He cited a boat captain as saying the Shaman Point location would require an extra hour of maneuvering compared to the Point Sophia location.

In response to the state’s decision, Mayor Villareal wrote that city administrator, Marlene Duvall, had spoken with the same captain, who “assured (her) that their (Royal Caribbean’s) fleet has the technological and mechanical ability to dock at Shaman Point.”

He said no representative from Royal Caribbean had contacted the city, seen a copy of the engineer’s presentation, “or in any way asked for more detailed information … other cruise line businesses have ships that have and will call in our community … none of these businesses have communicated any objection to the city’s location decision,” he wrote.

Mary Erickson said she feels that someone misrepresented the Shaman Point dock’s distance to ISP.

“When this letter was written, they’re thinking there were miles in between,” she said.

Gaffaney said the Shaman Point location may look closer than it actually is when cruise ships dock there. He said it would be at least a half-mile walk to ISP from Shaman Point.

“That’s substantial,” he said. “It may not be for you and I, but look at the average age and mobility of cruise ship passengers. Fifty percent of guests on Disney have strollers.”

Erickson said she doesn’t understand why cruise ships can’t dock at Shaman Point if they anchor there now.

“You’ve got to recognize that cruise lines make decisions where to stop based on activities for the passenger experience, and profitability,” Gaffaney said. “Cruise lines are coming to Icy Strait Point, not to Hoonah. Having said that, about … 20 to 30 percent … go into town, whether they walk into town, take one of our shuttles, or book a (local, independent) excursion.”

Bad Feelings

If the dock proposal survives stormy winter weather, it also must endure a tempest of local reaction.

The Icy Strait Point dock would be accessible only across privately owned Huna Totem land. That could leave the dock behind a locked gate.

The resolution approved by the Hoonah city council says Huna Totem will grant an easement across its land, with pedestrian access available on non-ship days.

The dock is meant to serve a dual purpose as a cruise ship dock and a “year-round transient berthing space for smaller vessels,” according to the state’s letter.

Erickson said she doubts it will be available 24/7.

“They say you’ll have access, but their actions show they won’t let people past that gate,” she said.

Others agreed that the atmosphere at ISP has been negative.

Bus drivers for companies other than Huna Totem are not allowed to enter the facility’s grounds even to pick up disabled riders, said resident Mike Mills, who sometimes picks up passengers for independent tours.

Gaffaney said ISP plans to change that policy and give independent tour operators access to ISP.

“It’s the right thing to do for the local operators, and it’s safer than right now,” he said.

Until recently, Hoonah residents who weren’t employees were not allowed to walk onto the property when cruise ships were in, Mills and the Ericksons said.

“It’s getting to a point now we’re pretty sure we’re going to see barbed wire fences going up,” Mills said. “Maybe gun towers, who knows?”

Gaffaney said policies about whether or not Hoonah residents could walk onto the property changed after Huna Totem became the majority owner.

“We have been the 100 percent owner (of Icy Strait Point) since 2009,” Gaffaney said. “Since that time, (we’ve) perhaps not communicated as often as we should that the policy has been vastly, vastly different … With the exception of some safety issues, there is public access year-round.”

Jim Erickson, Mary Erickson’s husband, said ISP bus drivers are sometimes told not to stop at the couple’s bar, or they’ll be fired.

Gaffaney denied that bus drivers are told not to stop at particular locations. “There are state-approved and authorized bus stops,” he said. “There are safety considerations … that comment … is not correct and does not represent our policy.”

Moving Forward

According to the recently approved resolution, the dock will be located at Icy Strait Point, on city-owned tidelands and Huna Totem-owned uplands.

The state, through the city, will be contributing about $14.4 million. Huna Totem will “secure the balance of funds necessary for the costs of development and construction of the Project, up to a maximum of $22,300,000.” That’s the current estimated cost for the project.

Huna Totem will be responsible for the operations and maintenance. The city will contribute the state grant, but that is “the extent of their liability,” Gaffaney said.

Hoonah is now going through legal review and drafting proposed contracts and agreements, Starbard said.

“Reaching a decision on the siting is merely the first step in what is going to be a very involved process of negotiation on how those public dollars are utilized in the best interests of everyone in the community,” Starbard said.

Gaffaney said they hope to begin construction at the end of this year or early 2015.

But not everything related to the issue is yet resolved: At least two Hoonah residents have circulated a petition calling for the removal of Mayor Villareal.

Starbard said he hasn’t been an active part of the recall effort, but that it went back as far as last fall. He said the petitioners were frustrated by “a series of obstructionist acts by the mayor.”

“I discouraged it at that point, largely because I don’t believe that anyone was looking at … anything other than the city’s best interests,” he said.

“They’re saying the mayor is against the dock,” Erickson said. “He’s not against the dock; he’s against site 1.”

Villareal did not return calls to his office by press time.

“It’s funny. We all want the same thing, we’re just divided,” Jim Erickson said.

“I’m just so passionate about it because this is my town. Our town,” Mary Erickson said, growing emotional. “It (the dock) is not meant to benefit anybody but the people of Hoonah.”

Starbard said he hopes the debate will soon be history.

“We’re hoping that, having taken the first step toward getting the dock built… in two years, as a community we’ll be sitting and going ‘Don’t we have a great dock? Wasn’t it silly we had this little fight among the family?'” he said.

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