(KCAW/Tash Kimmell)

Vendors hoping to cash in on the record numbers of cruise ship visitors next year in Sitka are going to have to pay for the privilege. The Sitka Assembly on Tuesday adopted a new fee system for outfitters and tour operators, requiring them to bid on the limited commercial space at Harrigan Centennial Hall.

Some vendors complained that bidding – which could run into the thousands of dollars – would ruin the “friendly” spirit among competitors who previously had to pay only $400 to set up shop at the building.

For the last twenty years, the vendor spaces at Sitka’s downtown tourist hub, Harrigan Centennial Hall, have been available to local tour operators and businesses on a first-come-first-serve basis, with a flat rate for permits. But not anymore. When the Sitka Assembly met on December 13 it approved a new policy: Now those businesses will have to secure their spots through a sealed bidding process with a minimum bid of $2,500 for vendors, and $5,000 for outfitters. And commercial vehicles will be required to pay for an annual permit in order to pick up and drop off passengers at the building.

With the number of cruise passengers growing, Sitka’s city administrator John Leach said it was important for the city to account for the added costs to maintain the building, which, in its current setup, is operating in the red. 

But some local tour operators who run their businesses at the city building pushed back. Andy Nye owns one of the tour companies that would be impacted. He worried that the new process would make the vendors competitive and favor outside competition. Right now he said the businesses work together well, and called them the “friends out front.” 

“You pit us against each other with this closed bid. Now we’re all trying to outbid each other. There’s only gonna be 10 spots out there. Last year there were 13 or 14 people, so you’re automatically gonna cut three people out,” he said. “I don’t think we’re quite ready for this, I don’t think this is ready, so what I’m asking you is please don’t vote this tonight. We’re not in a rush.”

“Sitka is a special place,” he added. “And I think this is the first step in turning it into those other places. Don’t ruin the friends out front. Because we like each other. We like working together.” 

Several other operators voiced opposition to the sealed bid process. Some said they should change the permit time from one year to three years, with a lower flat fee. And some said they should open up 20 spaces, not 10. 

Tony Rosas, who manages the building, said they decided to open up 10 spaces next year after observing pedestrian traffic snarls last summer, with a record number of tourists and vendors sharing space in front of the building at the bus pick-up location. 

“What was happening late morning and early afternoon was, at that point, they were starting to line up to get back to the ships,” Rosas said. “And because of the big numbers of people that we had, that whole east side of the building was just jam-packed with people.”

City administrator John Leach pushed back on the idea that larger out of town businesses would swoop in and outbid local vendors. 

“I know some of the argument has been brought up that the larger out of town businesses may come in and outbid,” Leach said and then asked Rosas what the current price is for a space out front. Rosas replied that right now a space costs a $400 flat rate.

“So is there anything preventing one of those larger businesses right now from coming in? First day of opening and paying the $400? And taking that space?” Leach asked. Rosas said there wasn’t.

“Not only am I a business supporter, but I understand at the seat I need to look out for the best interests of the city and all citizens and covering our expenses at this facility. And giving maximum value to the citizen is very important,” said assembly member Chris Ystad of the ordinance. “So I’m conflicted. All in all, I’m very conflicted. It’s not an easy one.”

Ystad and other assembly members were open to the concerns voiced by business owners and said they would consider making changes to it, and member Thor Christianson said he’d be open to making the lease multi-year or changing the bidding process from sealed to open, and he said he may even bring ordinances to amend the legislation in the coming weeks. 

“I expect this not to be the final answer,” said assembly member Tim Pike, who said he’d vote yes to start the process, but hoped to see some changes by the summer. “I think that it’s important for us to put out [that] it’s for sure the framework, so that people understand where we’re headed. And we can adapt it so that it fits the needs of our community,” he said.

Ultimately the assembly passed the ordinance, as written, on a 5-1 reading with Chris Ystad opposed.

If assembly members do bring amendments to the table, however, it’s unlikely they’ll impact the permit process for next summer’s cruise season. City administrator Leach said that staff were planning to move quickly once the ordinance passed, and he wasn’t optimistic that any big changes to the ordinance, which would require at least two readings at the assembly table, would be finalized in time to go into effect this summer.