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Cheryl Westover was born and raised in Sitka and started working at her family’s grocery store – now AC Lakeside – when she was 8 years old. She works there still, and says the experience has instilled in her a strong work ethic.
She says she decided to run for mayor because of frustration at a city government she feels isn’t moving forward as quickly as it should be.
“And no,” she says, “I’ve never wanted to be mayor, but I thought, you know what, we need a different type of leadership, and I think it’s just getting in there, and getting down to the grass roots and getting things done.”
Westover has been on Sitka’s Assembly since 2006, and she doesn’t hesitate when asked about her first order of business if she’s elected mayor.
“The first thing I’m going to do is ask the people on the Assembly to support maybe going after the Marine Passenger Fee fund money that the state holds and get a working dock out at the Cove that will help us get some wharfage fees, some cruise ship fees – anything,” she said. “And maybe even some infrastructure that will help us get bulk water ships in here.”
Bulk water shipments at Sawmill Cove Industrial Park have been talked about for years, but so far the project has been stalled. The city has a way to sell the water, and a way to get it from Blue Lake to the shore, but not a way to get it from the shore and onto a ship.
That infrastructure, plus a dock that would accommodate cruise ships, could help bring more money into Sitka – an acute need Westover says is highlighted by declining sales tax revenues, which meant tight budgets for 2011.
“Pretty soon there’s not going to be any money to work with,” Westover said. “I’m going to say let’s move forward. Let’s try to get a working dock. Let’s work with the Tribe on maybe an inter-island ferry system. Let’s get the dam built and maybe even be able to sell some of that electricity to the cruise ship docks in the summer.”
In the past, Sitkans have rejected proposals for a cruise-ship dock, some citing fears that the city’s downtown area will cater so heavily to the cruise ship companies that downtown will become vacant in the off-season.
“Oh, I don’t share those fears,” she said. “And there are days when I have to be downtown when the streets are full of tourists, and I quietly may kind of mumble to myself, but then I stop and think – a four-month-a-year business. They come in off the ship, spend money, and go away, and after four months the town’s ours. I do know my old-timer friends, we don’t tend to like change, but on the other hand we want the infrastructure, we don’t want to pay more taxes. But something’s got to off-set what they don’t want to pay.”
On the subject of taxes, Westover says the thought of higher taxes scares her; that it would be tantamount to pushing people out of town. But she also says that without more economic development, it might become necessary.
During her time on the Assembly, Westover has called for tighter controls on city spending, and has been a vocal opponent of the city continuing to lease Hames Athletic and Wellness Center. She voted against extending the lease on Hames last fall. This fall, Sitka voters will decide on a $6 million dollar proposal for the city to buy it and fix it up. Westover originally sponsored that ballot question, but at $15 million dollars. When it was amended down to $6 million dollars at the Assembly table, she opposed it, saying the money wasn’t enough to do what’s needed at Hames.
“It’s not that I’m against the rec center. I think we could build a new one for less than this whole thing is going to cost us, and I think we could probably go after school grants that would even maybe allow us to build something on our own land. But realistically, I don’t think we’re being fair to the citizens by telling them this $6 million is going to do much. If you listen to the Chamber report this last Wednesday, that $6 million equates to only one-and-a-half million going toward repairs of the building, and in reality the roof itself is $2 million. The heating system is over $1 million.”
Westover says once the city owns it, it will be responsible for fixing it, and that long term expense is what she says the city can’t afford.
The mayor in Sitka serves a two-year term. Westover faces John Stein for the job, on the October 5th municipal ballot.