The Sitka Assembly dealt with a variety of tourism issues on Tuesday.
Members unanimously approved a contract for Sitka Tours to transport passengers between downtown and a private cruise ship dock near the end of Halibut Point Road. The contract is valued at roughly $35,000, and the money comes from a head tax imposed on visitors.
They also voted 4 to 3 to have Mayor Mim McConnell represent the city at the cruise industry’s annual trade show in Miami. It takes place in March.
But the most discussion Tuesday night took place around the city’s Sea Walk project. Sitka has about $1.8 million to spend on the pathway, and it’s about to go looking for someone to build it.
Jay Lageschulte is from Omaha, Neb., but visiting some family in Sitka. On Wednesday, we asked him to participate in a little experiment.
We asked this out-of-towner to walk from Crescent Harbor to Sitka National Historical Park.
“I can do that, I think,” he says, standing in the parking lot near Crescent Harbor.
He walks down the long sidewalk next to the harbor, looking at boats, until the sidewalk ends, and a sign tells him to cut across some tennis courts.
“OK,” he says on the other side of the courts. “From here, we’re in the middle of the driveway. We’ll have to go across the street … the only sidewalk there is.”
We head down another stretch of sidewalk, and after not too long the sidewalk ends again and we cross back over to the other side of the street.
After another stretch of sidewalk we arrive at the park.
Thousands of tourists take these steps every summer, and on Tuesday, Sitka took a big step of its own, toward making the route a lot less complicated.
At its regular meeting, the Assembly agreed to start looking for a contractor to build the Sitka Sea Walk.
It’s a wide pathway that will hug the shoreline. Eventually, it will stretch at least to O’Connell Bridge. But this part leads pedestrians from Crescent Harbor, past the Sitka Sound Science Center and Sheldon Jackson Museum, and into the national park without any interruptions.
“I’ve had the opportunity the last two years to watch visitors as they come along the walkway, get stymied right behind the playground, and the tennis courts” and, in some cases, attempt to climb across the rocks that line the harbor and the waterways leading past the science center, said Lon Garrison, aquaculture director for the science center.
“Sometimes it’s comical,” he said, “and sometimes it’s downright scary to watch those folks crawl around on those rocks.”
At the Assembly table Tuesday, Thor Christianson hoped that, in addition to making the route easier, the Sea Walk would help boost the city’s struggling tourism industry.
“Because we have to work harder to get people here than other cities,” Christianson said. “We’re working very hard on trying to get more ships to come here, but we have to have something for them — an attractive city they’ll want to look at and come to — and I think this project really will do that.”
City engineers estimate the project would take more than $6,000 a year to maintain. In addition to the walkway, the Seawalk incorporates landscaping and some support structures. And that’s where Assembly member Pete Esquiro’s red flag went up.
“I am concerned about the kinds of bills we leave Thor’s kids, and my grandkids and others, and the young guys on the Assembly,” Esquiro said.
Funding to build the project itself comes from grants — about $1.7 million from the state of Alaska, and another $80,000 from the federal government. The design of the project is the result of no fewer than five public meetings since 2011, and three presentations from architects to the Assembly.
Once the Assembly advertises for bids on the project it will award a contract, and then work could begin as early as this summer.