Tours and excursion bookings in front of Sitka’s Harrigan Centennial Hall (KCAW/Katherine Rose)

Fees could rise for vendors at Harrigan Centennial Hall next year. 

When the Sitka Assembly met in a special meeting on Thursday (8-18-22), they heard a presentation from Centennial Hall manager Tony Rosas and consultant Lenise Henderson– the two were tasked in early March with updating the permitting system for the city-owned hub, where many tour groups congregate in downtown Sitka each summer.  Rosas said the building is seeing more passengers than ever with the record-breaking tourist season. 

“One of the things that we had realized early on, is one of the biggest impacts of vehicle traffic ,now that we have quite a few more tourists coming through town, is property, roads, infrastructure, it’s getting used way more than what it ever has been,” he said.

Right now, the city doesn’t charge anything for vehicle pickups and drop offs. The new plan would require a yearly permit for each vehicle, ranging from $250 for a six passenger car, to a $1000 permit for a vehicle carrying 30 or more passengers. 

Currently, the city charges vendors $400 for one of 10 available spaces in front of the hall, and $500 for an outfitter space. If approved, the new plan would replace those fees with a sealed bidding process, requiring a minimum bid of $5000. That didn’t sit well with some tour operators in the audience. Melissa Henricksen owns Baranof Tours. She said she understands the need to raise rates, but worried the bidding process and price would prove challenging. 

“We’re all getting along very well, all of the vendors, there’s only four vendors that are down there,” Henricksen said. “And I think $5,000 is a big chunk for anybody trying to start in, and above $5,000 would be way too much for many of us.” 

No decisions on the plan were made on Thursday, but assembly members offered guidance to city staff. Some suggested a permit renewal schedule of three or five years, rather than requiring vendors re-apply every year. Others suggested a lower minimum bid to vye for a space at Centennial Hall. Rebecca Himschoot wanted to know if there was a way to prioritize local businesses. 

“We have people who have operated here for 20 years plus. I don’t want to see someone come from outside, and I I know that doesn’t sound great, but I want to honor the businesses that have been here growing Sitka,” Himschoot said. “And I’m afraid if we have like the closed bid and some outside entity, like a cruise ship, comes in and outbids all of our local operators, they’re just belly up like that’s, that’s a concern I have. But I don’t know if it would even be legal to give a priority to local.”

Most assembly members felt the framework brought forth by Rosas and Henderson was a good jumping off point, and agreed that the fees need to be updated. They’ve remained the same for 20 years.

“This land is owned by every citizen of Sitka. And I think getting a reasonable return on it is important,” said Thor Christianson, who added that the extra wear and tear on the building also needs to be taken into account 

While the assembly made no final decisions on how to update Harrigan Centennial Hall’s fee structure, code changes must be approved by the assembly at a future meeting in order for the plan to be enacted. 

View the draft proposal here