A new task force will now tackle tourism in Sitka. The Sitka Assembly on Tuesday (3-14-23), approved the creation of a new “tourism task force” meant to investigate and plan for the city’s approach as it prepares for increased cruise traffic in 2023 and beyond.

A short-term tourism plan drafted by the Sitka Planning Commission got the city through a record-breaking cruise season in 2022. But that plan was always intended as a stop gap — and now the torch is being passed. Over the next year, a new “tourism task force” will dive into everything from land use regulations and waterfront development, to how many cruise passengers Sitka can reasonably handle. The ultimate goal? To develop a long-term tourism management strategy for a city that’s expecting more than 500,000 cruise visitors this summer– the most it’s ever seen by a wide-margin.

To the nine-member group, the assembly will appoint one representative from the “downtown business corridor” one member representing tours and attractions, one representing business in general, one from the Sitka Sound Cruise Terminal, and two at-large members. The Sitka Tribe of Alaska, Port and Harbors Commission, and Sustainability Commission will each appoint one member to the task force as well. 

Only one person commented on the resolution to establish a task force. Richard Wein said the business and tourism industry interests were too heavily represented.

“I think that they should increase the number of community members at-large to at least four, to have some parity with business,” Wein said. “Clearly, what businesses want is more business, and they’re interested parties, and they may not have the view of the regular run-of-the-mill citizen.”

Assembly member Chris Ystad said they’d heard from a handful of Sitkans who felt similarly. But they’d received an equal amount of support for more industry representation on the task force.

“And considering I’ve had complaints about how the seats are favored one way or the other, from both sides, I feel like we’ve met a good equilibrium, or at least close, because no one’s happy. And I think that that’s a good place to be,” Ystad said. “You know, hopefully, with that we get good discussion and some good, interesting results.”

And assembly member Tim Pike said he felt all of the representatives on the task force would be “Sitkans” first.

“And then they fill other roles in our community,” Pike said. “And I think they all have the best interest of Sitka at heart. That’s my belief. And I think this taskforce will bear that out.”

Assembly member Thor Christianson thought there would be limits to what the task force could do, but it would be busy, nevertheless: 

“It’ll be good for, I guess, doing what the short term plan did, which is figuring out where we can do better,” Christianson said. “But as far as addressing levels of tourism in Sitka, I don’t think, honestly, it’ll have the power to do much about that. But there’s going to be constant work talking about things…everything from the crosswalks we talked about tonight, to what levels we close downtown, or do we close downtown?” he added, and said that it would be good to take that work off of the Planning Commission’s plate.

With little debate, the assembly voted unanimously to establish the task force. It must appoint the nine members by the end of April. The task force then has a year until it makes its final recommendations to the assembly, which could include establishing a permanent tourism commission.

In other business on Tuesday night (3-14-23), the Sitka Assembly authorized the city administrator to apply for two federal pass-through grants to fund crosswalks and road improvements on Harbor Drive and Raptor Way.

If the city scores grants from the Transportation Alternatives Program, it would fund a $1.7 million dollar project on Raptor Way, with a 9% match from the state DOT and a 5% match from the city, around $86,000.

The second grant application, if selected, would fund a $1.5 million dollar crosswalk on Harbor Drive, including a 9% match from the state and a 5% match from the city- around $75,000. The high price tag was estimated by the DOT, and includes design and construction- both of which will be administered by the state.

The assembly also went behind closed doors at the end of the meeting to discuss four lawsuits in which the city is a defendant. The assembly spent just under an hour in executive session, and when it returned, Mayor Steven Eisenbeisz said that the assembly had received some updates on “some long standing cases that may have some progress” and one new case from the city attorney, but disclosed no further details. 

Court records show that three of the cases involve the former city-owned Sitka Community Hospital. Two are civil cases against former Sitka Community Hospital doctor Richard McGrath, who pleaded guilty to sexual assault earlier this month. The third lawsuit was brought by Kimberly Gleason against the hospital, SEARHC and Jeffrey Bentley, a physician’s assistant. It alleges medical negligence in Bentley’s treatment of her child in 2018.  According to court documents issued today, the parties have reached a pending settlement. The fourth lawsuit was brought in US District Court earlier this month– the plaintiff Ronald Dick is suing the Sitka Police Department, alleging that SPD discriminated against him and violated the Americans with Disabilities Act.