Porta Potties, barricades, trash cans, an ATV ambulance — Sitka could see more than double the cruise ship passengers it sees in a typical year this summer and the city is scrambling to accommodate them. And while there’s potential for Sitka’s business economy to benefit, the influx comes with costs too.
On the biggest days of the cruise season this summer, Sitka could double in size. Last spring, Sitka Sound Cruise Terminal owner Chris McGraw announced the recent expansion of his private cruise ship dock meant a very big tourism year was in the works. The community could see around 480,000 cruise ship passengers from the end of April to early October.
And the mad dash to prepare began. The city’s Planning Department is focusing primarily on triage this season, with more long term plans to come next year. Commissioners presented the document to the Assembly during a work session on Thursday (1-13-21).
Assembly member Crystal Duncan wondered how Sitka’s tourism boom will compare to other Southeast communities’.
“There are other cruise ports that are anticipating numbers similar to ours,” Duncan said. “Have we been able to touch base with those planning departments or those municipalities to figure out what they’re going to do to accept this type of traffic this season?”
Planning Director Amy Ainslie said that while most communities are seeing growth this year, none are seeing an increase comparable to Sitka’s.
“In the last couple of years, we’ve been at about 200,000. So for us to go to 480,000 is, you know, more than doubling sort of what we’ve had as the norm,” Ainslie said. “Whereas, you know, communities like Juneau are going from maybe like 1.1 million to 1.3 [million passengers]. So as a percentage change, as like what is kind of normal life and how much they can absorb? Places like Juneau, Ketchikan, and Skagway are positioned very differently than Sitka.”
And with that staggering increase come a lot of questions about everything from traffic to toilets and cell phone service, and right now not all of those questions have clear answers.
The biggest change is a possible Lincoln Street closure on ship days of 3000 or more passengers, which is nearly half the cruise season. That’s what the Planning Commission is recommending, but another option is making the street one-way all summer long. Ainslie asked which option the Assembly preferred. But several Assembly members, including Kevin Mosher, said he wanted more community feedback before making a decision.
“My only concern is, I’m just hung up on how we handle Lincoln Street,” Mosher said. “I don’t know which way I’m going to vote, you know. I might end up going one, complete closure… [it’s] just a hard pill to swallow it, you know, to think about that.”
Assembly member Thor Christianson, the planning commission liaison, said the one-way option was the “worst of both worlds” for traffic and safety.
“We’re still going to have a lot more congestion. And we’re throwing in a safety aspect. And it won’t be very easy to drive down there. I mean, it’ll be hard to drive through,” Christianson said. “So I don’t know…I guess it would be better than not closing it at all. But it would it would be rough.”
Closing Lincoln Street is further complicated by the state’s plan to resurface a section of Sawmill Creek Road, widen its sidewalks and add bike lanes- making sections of two of Sitka’s main corridors inaccessible to vehicles for a large portion of the summer.
What the Assembly ultimately decides about Lincoln Street will affect the overall budget. While the city could profit tremendously from a boom tourism year, it will cost anywhere from $1.2 to $1.5 million to prepare for this summer. The plan’s budget includes everything from $300,000 for temporary bathrooms to $100,000 for an ATV ambulance for use at the cruise ship dock. The Assembly will likely draw from the $1.6 million held in the city’s Cruise Passenger Excise Tax fund – that’s money collected by the state from cruise ship head taxes that must be spent on items and services for cruise tourists.
Since the meeting was a work session, no public comment was taken on the draft plan. The Assembly will consider the plan on first reading at its next regular meeting on January 25.