Part 2 of 2.
Should Sitka have a dock for cruise passengers near downtown? The Sitka Assembly will decide Tuesday whether to ask voters that question. It’s not a new question, and in Part 1 of this series, you heard about the economic factors that have brought it back up for discussion.
Part of the idea is that a dock would make it easier for passengers aboard large cruise ships to disembark. That could mean more people and more money for the city. Would a dock make a difference to passengers?
We went to O’Connell Bridge to find out.
12-year-old Sam Taylor wants to play in a golf tournament in North Carolina. So, he’s set up a small wooden dance floor underneath the O’Connell Bridge. A long line of cruise passengers zig-zags across the parking lot in front of him. Taylor is dancing for donations, and he has a captive audience.
The donations he receives will be the last dollars these passengers spend today in Sitka. Would passengers spend more time and money if there was a dock?
“No, because it seems to me the way they schedule the trips … I was here several years ago, and it seems like we spent a whole day here, before,” said Mary Fickerson, from Santa Paula, Calif.
It’s her second time to Sitka.
“We went on a tour this time,” she said. “Last time I was here we walked over to the totem pole museum and through all the shops and stood in the middle of the street and took pictures of the church.”
She echoes the concern of some residents who worry a dock would overwhelm downtown Sitka and change its character. She compared Sitka to Juneau, where ships tie up to shore.
“Juneau is much more commercialized,” she said. “There’s a whole line of big ships. This is much prettier.”
On the other hand…
“I think it would be a fantastic idea,” said Lori McCutcheon-Sakelson, of Pittsburgh. “It’s too cold out here. It takes too long. We want to get in and out.”
She and her friend Elise Dudik came ashore around 8 a.m., and they’re holding several bags from Ben Franklin, the New Archangel Trading Company, and more. Most of their time was spent shopping.
“I like to spend money, and I would spend more money if I had more time, instead of having to take this boat,” Dudik said. “It was too much back and forth.”
In all, about 10 passengers weighed in. Opinions were mixed on whether a dock would give them more time, whether it would spoil the waterfront, whether it would cause them to spend more money. And then there was Joanne Campbell Schiefer, of Cold Spring Harbor, N.Y.
She flagged me down and told me, cordially, that I was asking the wrong question to the wrong group of people.
“Would Holland America or Princess stop coming here because you don’t have that?” she said. “And that’s the question they would answer instead of you guys voting on it, because you’re anticipating what it is. The real question you need to ask the people who are bringing the people here. Does it matter to them?”
So, does it?
John Binkley is president of the Alaska Cruise Association. It lobbies on behalf of the major cruise lines that stop in Alaska ports.
“Every cruise line is different, and it’s hard to generalize about them,” he said. “Their operational requirements, the size of the ship, whether they have the capacity to lighter or not, and many other factors are involved in whether they would prefer to have a dock or not. For a community to build it and assume they would show up is not wise.”
Those conversations would probably happen among city leaders and cruise lines. Getting a company to say publicly whether it would come to a dock, at least before those talks take place, isn’t likely.
Still, Binkley says it’s good Sitka’s having this conversation. And a conversation it is. A robust one, too, at least online. Resident Thanny Bean started a Facebook group called “Sitka Dock – should or should not” on July 10.
“I was very pleasantly surprised,” he said. “I invited a group of a people I thought would be interested in the conversation and it just swelled from there, which I thought was great. I think I invited 30 or 40 people.”
Two weeks later, the group has more than tripled in size with more than 135 members. The page includes conversations about what people want to see in Sitka’s long-term future, about pollution, about lack of industry in town, about a private dock built at the north end of town, and more. And the discussions, unlike many that take place on the Internet, have remained fairly civil.
As for the title issue: Sitka Dock, should or should not?
“It’s a pretty even 50-50 split,” Bean said. “There’s people that are caught in the gray area, too.”
Bean is not in the gray area. He thinks a dock would be beneficial. But mostly, he just wants to see the conversation continue. It will do that on Tuesday night, when the Assembly considers whether to send the issue to voters in October.