Jo Anne and John Owens, of Tallahassee, Fla., walk past the former location of the Fairweather Gallery on Lincoln Street on Friday morning. The business moved to Juneau, which receives more cruise visitors annually than Sitka. The Owenses came to Sitka aboard the Seven Seas Navigator. (KCAW photo/Ed Ronco)

Part one in a two-part series.

Residents of Sitka could vote this fall on whether to build a dock for large cruise ships near downtown. Right now, visitors arriving aboard such vessels are ferried to shore on smaller boats.

The Sitka Assembly is debating whether to ask voters if they want a dock in the area behind Centennial Hall. The idea is more to get a sense of whether Sitkans want the city to pursue funding for a downtown dock.

Those in favor of the dock hope it will bring more money into the community. Those against the dock are concerned it could spoil Sitka’s downtown. But the arguments are more complicated. A downtown dock has been a complicated – and controversial – topic in Sitka for many years.

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A navy blue Holland America ship is anchored in Sitka Sound. Passengers are combing through downtown stores. And, on this Thursday afternoon, I’m walking along Sitka’s main drag with Tonia Rioux. She runs the Sitka Convention and Visitors Bureau.

We take a look around.

“I see a lot less people for a cruise day than what we used to see downtown,” she says. “And I see some empty storefronts and a lot of sale signs in the window — discount sale signs, liquidating. Some shops have goods in them but they’re closed right now, even though it’s still early afternoon.”

This scene was a little different four years ago, when nearly 290,000 passengers came to Sitka on cruise ships. This year, 106,000 people are expected to arrive that way. It’s about a third as many, and it is the lowest number in at least 15 years.

“By nature, I’m always very optimistic,” Rioux said. “But the reality of things right now is that people are very worried. I feel like there’s cause for that. There’s valid cause for concern.”

We stop for a minute in front of an empty store at the corner of Lincoln and American streets. A sign behind the building reads “Parking for Colin only.” That’s Colin Hereforth, but he’s not parking there anymore. He and his wife Christy Jones, ran the Fairweather Gallery and Gifts from this location for 17 years. But this year, they moved the business to Juneau.

“When we got the cruise ship calendar last fall for this coming season, and we saw that it was down again further, somewhere around 100,000 visitors, versus a million in Juneau, it seemed like, well, how can we not do this?” Hereforth said.

Still, Hereforth says it was a difficult decision, and one that’s confused a few people.

“’Oh have you moved to Juneau? Are you in Juneau now? Are you living in Juneau?’ And adamantly, I tell everybody, absolutely not. Sitka’s my home,” he said. “Sitka’s been my home for a long time, I’m well rooted here and I have no desire to leave this community. That was part of the heartbreak – the difficulty in deciding to take our business elsewhere.”

The studio portion of Fairweather will remain in Sitka, too. But moving the store to Juneau appears to be paying off.

“We’re doing, generally, five days a week, what was our absolute best days over here in the past, which would only be a handful – half a dozen – during the course of the summer,” Hereforth said.

Hereforth, though, is torn on the issue of a dock. Would it help to have more visitors coming through town? Absolutely, he says. Is a dock the way to do it? It’s part of it, he says, but not a silver bullet.

The case for a dock goes like this: If it was easier for passengers to get on and off the boat, more of them would spend more time on shore, and therefore more time shopping. That translates to more money for local businesses, and here’s where the city comes in, more sales tax revenues for the municipal government.

The case against a dock includes the worry that downtown would be overwhelmed, or that more businesses would close up in the off-season, leaving downtown deserted.

“You know, I’ve tried to stay open in Sitka, one winter,” said Marcus Hernandez, owner of the Sitka Fur Gallery. The store is closed during the off-season. He says the winter he tried to stay open, he didn’t have enough sales to make it worth it.

“If I did, I would,” he said. “But we’re an Alaska company. I pay my taxes, I have a home here in Sitka, I own several properties in Sitka. I love Sitka. If I could be here, I would.”

The Fur Gallery also has other locations, including Ketchikan. That’s where Hernandez meets customers who chose not to get off the boat in Sitka.

“The amount of people that have told us that they did not get off the boat is quite a few,” Hernandez said. “It’s a problem if you’re handicapped, if you don’t like the lightering, if it makes you nervous … I mean, give somebody a reason not to get on shore and they’ll stay on board.”

This is the first of two reports on the possibility of a cruise dock in Sitka. In the next report, we’ll hear from cruise passengers, an industry representative, and the organizer of an online discussion titled “Sitka Dock – should or should not.” All of that airs Monday on Raven News.