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City commits to helping downtown businesses

Jo Anne and John Owens, of Tallahassee, Fla., walk along Lincoln Street shops in the summer of 2012. Downtown merchants asked the assembly to help direct tourists to shops on both ends of the street. (KCAW photo/Ed Ronco)

Jo Anne and John Owens, of Tallahassee, Fla., walk along Lincoln Street in the summer of 2012. Downtown merchants asked the assembly this month to help direct tourists to shops on both ends of the street. (KCAW photo/Ed Ronco)

Municipal officials say they’ll do their best to make sure cruise ship tourists are split evenly between two downtown docks.

It’s one of the issues that went before Tuesday night’s meeting of the Sitka Assembly.

The Greater Sitka Chamber of Commerce recently asked municipal officials to make sure the Crescent Harbor and O’Connell Bridge docks get the same amount of traffic.

It said that would divide cruise-ship tourists among a larger number of downtown shops and restaurants.

Bonnie Brenner of Brenner’s Fine Clothing & Gifts said those visitors tend to stay close to where they’re dropped off.

“I am amazed people can come to Sitka. If it’s on this side or it’s on this side, how come they can’t all go on both sides? But they don’t. It is a fact. It is amazing to me,” she said.

Another merchant said the age of many tourists limits how far they want to walk.

Most of Sitka’s cruise ships anchor away from shore. They transport passengers to and from town via what are called lighter or lightering boats, which land at the two docks.

Jay Sweeney, Sitka’s recent interim municipal administrator, said dock schedules are set by the harbormaster.

“It was a commitment for 2014 that Stan Eliason, the harbormaster, would as much as possible try to provide for an even distribution of passengers coming off the lighters,” Sweeney said.

Officials said the 2013 numbers were close to equal. But bad late-season weather sent more of the transfer boats to the Crescent dock, which is better protected.

Assembly member Phyllis Hackett lives on an island and uses Crescent Harbor often. She said Sitka’s local fleet should be part of the discussion.

“I’ve seen countless amounts of problems and near- disasters averted. It’s gotten better because the lighter boats are more considerate than they used to be or a little bit more knowledgeable of rules of the road than they used to be and that helps. But I was very excited to see it moving because it was so problematic,” Hackett said.

At Tuesday’s meeting, the assembly unanimously voted support for a letter saying staff would increase efforts to split landings between the two docks.

Sweeney says that would not be the case for passengers on ships docking outside downtown.

“It would not be equal for those individuals being bused from the old Sitka Dock. They would be exclusively bused to the new Centennial Building facility because of the superiority for handling large volumes of passengers,” Sweeney said.

The letter also turned down one merchant suggestion – running a shuttle bus or trolley to help tourists visit more downtown shops.

We’ll have more reports about Tuesday’s assembly meeting later today.

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