Local News

New Sitka cruise dock awaiting first call

SITKA, ALASKA
The McGraw family bought the Halibut Point boatyard six years ago, and rapidly expanded the business to include marine fuel, residential heating fuel, an expanded haul out and pressure washing pads, and a self-service gas station close to town.

But those ventures are small compared to the McGraw’s latest investment: a one-thousand foot deepwater dock. T

he floating part of the facility is a former section of the Hood Canal Bridge, built originally in 1946. McGraw said the old highway bridge was purchased in British Columbia and towed to Sitka in 2009.

He told the chamber audience that his decision to move ahead on building the new dock was based on frustration with Sitka’s declining cruise passenger numbers. McGraw read from a letter-to-the editor in 1998 by then-chamber director Steve Dalquist.

“Ships are getting bigger, and the new 1,000-footers will soon dominate Southeastern waters. Because of their size, these ships will limit their ports of call to communities with docks. It will be a decision based on passenger comfort and safety. We are currently the only destination in this region without one. The projection is that we will lose a significant number of visits. To dock or not to dock is not about increasing the number of ships as it is about ensuring that they keep coming.”

Virtually everything Dalquist predicted in his 1998 letter, McGraw observed, has come to pass. Fifteen of the eighteen ships cruising in Alaska which were built since the letter was written do not call in Sitka. Additionally, Sitka’s share of the cruise market has steadily shrunk over the period.

Ketchikan and Juneau, meanwhile, have each built two new docks.

So now, Sitka also has a dock. McGraw says they’re calling the “Old Sitka Dock” because of the nearby state historical park. It’s got a traffic plan, a new road entrance, and new restrooms. Only one thing is missing.

“Many of you are probably wondering, When are the ships showing up? We have met with Holland America and some of the other ships that come into Sitka. We don’t have any commitments. One issue that they did bring up was the affordability of a shuttle bus service.”

The McGraw’s dock is about 5 miles outside of downtown Sitka. McGraw estimated that it would take 8 to 10 buses running every 10 minutes while a ship was tied up to shuttle all the passengers into town. He thought the city’s existing lightering facilities at the O’Connell Bridge and Crescent Harbor were the logical choices to drop-off passengers. Currently, the cruise lines pay $600 a day to use the lighter docks. A continuous shuttle service would create significant additional expense for passengers.

Still, McGraw thought it was worth it. He pointed to statistics showing that only 65-percent of passengers chose to disembark aboard tenders, while 90 percent leave the ship when it’s tied up at a dock. Just this difference, McGraw said, could add up to significant revenue for the community.

“This year, if we had gotten a ship every day there was a ship in, we could have had 110,000 potential passengers at the dock. This same number of ships – using the 65 percent – while anchored, 71,500 would get off. At a dock, you would up that to 99,000. So, an additional 27,500 passengers would have gotten off if they were docked.”

According to Alaska visitor industry statistics, each of those 27,500 extra passengers would have dutifully spent their $107, for a total of $2.9 million in additional sales in Sitka.

McGraw said bringing even one new ship to Sitka would add 48,000 passengers into the mix, and over $4-million in sales.

The chamber audience applauded McGraw’s gamble, even though it has yet to pay off. The company has never been short on initiative. During Q & A, a chamber member pointed out the obvious solution to the empty dock.

“Any plans for a McGraw cruise ship?”

McGraw said that the cruise lines seemed to be waiting to follow Holland America’s lead. Until a big ship takes the plunge, he said the dock will be used by seafood processors to load freight, and by the concrete companies to load aggregate.
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