Sitka will likely take over management of the Halibut Point State Recreation Area. But that doesn’t mean the city is happy about it.
The rec is one of several sites that went into so-called “passive management” on July 1, when state parks laid off its Sitka staff. Since then, local groups have been scrambling to fill the void. The National Park Service, for instance, has taken over maintenance of the historical sites at Castle Hill and Old Sitka through at least October.
But Halibut Point Rec — perhaps Sitka’s most popular park — is still looking for a suitor. On Tuesday night (7-28-15), the Sitka Assembly decided to explore ways to step in, even as assembly members worried that it sets the wrong precedent.
To say the State of Alaska is eager to wash its hands of its Sitka properties might be an understatement.
On Tuesday night, City Administrator Mark Gorman described his conversations with Mike Eberhart, the regional superintendent for State Parks. “They were willing to give me the keys yesterday and walk away from it,” Gorman said. “They are willing to enter into an agreement almost immediately with the City and Borough of Sitka for what they call a management authority, which pretty much gives us complete authority over the park and responsibility for the park.”
The state has even suggested it would consider transferring the land to Sitka outright, Gorman said.
City officials have been dreading this moment ever since State Parks, faced with a $500,000 budget cut, announced it would lay off its only Sitka employee. That means that since July 1, nobody has looking after the 35 acres of beachfront park that make up the Halibut Point Recreation Area. Until someone steps in, the bathrooms are closed, nobody is picking up trash, and the picnic shelters and trails have been left to the elements.
But as assembly member Steven Eisenbeisz pointed out, the question is how the city would fund the park, when the state couldn’t.
“We’re now taking on something, potentially taking on something that could potentially cost us quite a bit of money,” Eisenbeisz said. “Money which we don’t have at this current point.”
But Gorman said he thinks the cost of inaction would be higher, as the park becomes a public safety issue. He suggested exploring partnerships with local nonprofits, and said there might be creative options for generating revenue.
“What came to our attention the other day is that the cabin in the Starrigavan campground, is the most used cabin on the Tongass,” he said. “That an opportunity to put one or two similar type structures in Halibut Point, so people would have access to overnight recreational cabins on our road system, would be [one] possibility.”
Local organizations could adopt picnic shelters or trails to maintain, Gorman said. He even suggested creating a few lots at the park for the tiny houses that the Sitka Conservation Society wants to build.
Assembly members were clearly intrigued by the options. But Ben Miyasato spoke for many at the table when he said he’s frustrated that the state is simply walking away, and leaving the city to clean up the mess. It’s a scenario that officials worry will become more common, as tight budgets force the state to shed more and more services.
And assembly member Michelle Putz said it’s a lousy precedent. “I think it’s important that the state realize that we don’t appreciate that we’re being put into this spot,” she said. “They could have done the same things that you’re proposing, but yet they’re essentially just dropping the ball.”