The board of the Gary Paxton Industrial Park is having an existential crisis — and it may mean a change in direction for the future.

At its regular monthly meeting in May (5-20-19) the board voted to downgrade its powers over the park to “advisory.”

The move may signal the need to consolidate all of Sitka’s waterfront infrastructure — including harbors — into a port authority.

The Gary Paxton Industrial Park — formerly the Sawmill Cove Industrial Park — has been operated under a management contract for the last 19 years with SEDA, the Sitka Economic Development Association.

That’s a lot of titles and acronyms, but in a nutshell: The park has been run all this time by SEDA director Garry White and a five-member board appointed by the Sitka Assembly.

White suggested it was time to reexamine how the park functions.

“This year our contract was suggested to be changed, and upon an administration legal review they found that we weren’t necessarily operating per the existing code 2.38,” said White. “And what the existing code does is empower the board to have a lot of power: But with that power also comes responsibility.”

As written, the Sitka General Code chapter covering the park says that the board will be responsible for the “operation, maintenance, and development of the park” including “docks” and all relevant facilities. The chapter also gives the park board power to “enforce all rules and regulations for the administration of facilities under its management.”

But it has evolved differently over time. By far the largest amount of work by the board has been engaging with tenants and potential property buyers, developing a bulk water system, and marketing rights to that water. Almost every single function of the board goes to the assembly for final approval.

White thought that de facto arrangement should be spelled out.

“And what I’m suggesting is that we modify the board’s powers,” he said. “And so what I’ve done is go through Sitka General Code 2.38, and if you look, most places where it says ‘shall be responsible for’ I’ve put in ‘shall recommend policies for’.”

While this has been the board’s approach, part of the desire to revise the language comes from frustration. Both White and the board, over the past year especially, have felt undermined by municipal government on two fronts: The transfer of park funds to the Electric Department for the study of problems with the bulk water system, and the condemnation of the park’s utility dock on the cusp of its sale.

So White was asking the board to pull back and accept the role it had long adopted, or go for something bigger: A port authority.

“If we want to operate as a full port authority, like what I think the original intent was, we should really go out and see what that entails,” White urged the board. “There could be some synergies here by combining the Harbor Department, you could also look at the assets of the airport, the assets of the marine cold storage building. Really go out and look at what a port authority would do.”

But the all-volunteer board did not want to commit to the idea. Chair Scott Wagner said that it was hard to contemplate doing anything beyond the board’s current responsibilities “with no staff whatsoever,” an opinion shared by the three other members present.

They were inclined to accept White’s recommendations to scale back the powers that they were granted, but have never really exercised.

During public testimony, Kelly Diephuis, the operations manager for Northline Seafoods, urged the board to think twice.

“All I know about this is what I’ve just heard,” said Diephuis, “and I guess if I were in the board members’ seats I would be thinking ‘This is a pretty seismic change’ from what I’m hearing is currently in place to just becoming explicitly an advisory board. Perhaps it might be worth giving some thought to whatever you want — it sounds like there’s authority you could assert if you wanted to now, and you would be giving up that capacity.”

Municipal attorney Brian Hanson also counseled that changing the fundamental authority of the park board likely would involve more than some word changes in the code.

Nevertheless, the board voted 4-0 to submit White’s recommended changes to the assembly — to force a reexamination of the fundamental roles and responsibilities at Sitka’s industrial park.

“One of your strategic plans is to disband the board once they get to a spot,” said White. “We’re almost there, and I think the timing would be right to look at a port authority.”