Sitka’s Lincoln Street on June 21, 2023. Members of Sitka’s Tourism Task Force have since learned that 9,700 cruise passengers may have been a low estimate for the day, with the actual number approaching 13,000. Ship capacity often shows lower berths only, and this time of year there are many families traveling together, with kids or others sleeping on upper berths, or pull-out couches. (KCAW/Rich McClear)

Sitka hosted over 9,700 visitors in one day on June 21. That’s roughly 1,400 more people than live in the community, based on the latest data from the US Census Bureau.

Sitkans understood that there would be days like this: Visitors shoulder-to-shoulder along the roughly five blocks of Lincoln Street that were closed to vehicle traffic for the occasion. Mayor Steven Eisenbeisz owns a retail store in the heart of this area. At Tuesday’s assembly meeting (6-27-23) he wondered aloud whether June 21 was a bonanza, or a lesson in overcrowding.

“The day had slowed down a little bit, I took the liberty to walk up and down the street and talk to some of the vendors to see how that day went,” said Eisenbeisz. “Not everybody was available, a lot of people were still really busy. But the general consensus that I got was, if you had a storefront, you said it was too many people. If you had a food truck, or you were out on the street like that, you generally liked it, because you sold out early and you got to go home. So you know, the feeling even from the merchants who stand to profit from that was that 10,000 people in one day was far too many. And I say that not because it was one or two, but it was everybody.”

Sitka administrator John Leach said that he also had taken a walk downtown to visit with business owners, and subsequently communicated his concerns to Sitka’s representatives in the Cruise Line International Association (CLIA).

Leach told the assembly that it wasn’t just Sitka’s main street that was overcrowded.

“Trying to do work at City Hall, our bandwidth was gone,” Leach said. “And our computers slowed to a crawl and our phones weren’t working. So I know other communities have had these issues before. I know Juneau had these issues when they had their cruise boom. And I reminded some of the folks that I talked to in the cruise industry of some of the early discussions we had about over commitment of Sitka’s resources. And where is that balance? And so we’re learning that right now.”

Off of main street, other organizations were also feeling the pinch. The Sitka Sound Science Center published a letter-to-the-editor in the Daily Sentinel on June 23 announcing that they were reducing their hours, and closing at 3 p.m.

Center director Lisa Busch says her organization values the interaction with visitors, and the opportunity to educate people about science, salmon, and the ocean, “But we are just realizing what our carrying capacity is for that, for our staff and for our building,” Busch told KCAW in a phone interview. “We just can’t take all the people that want to come all at once.”

Busch says closing earlier will give her staff a chance to prepare for the next day, as well as fulfill other functions at the center, which in addition to its aquarium and salmon hatchery, is a year-round scientific research facility.

The high volume of cruise passengers in Sitka on June 21 was caused by the simultaneous visits of the Ruby Princess, with just over 3,000 passengers; the Eurodam with just over 2,000 passengers; and the Quantum of the Seas, with 4,600 passengers. Those same three ships are scheduled to be in port again one more time on July 19.

In other business from the assembly’s regular meeting on June 27:

Federal grant sought for Thimbleberry Bypass project

Sitka’s electric utility is hoping to attract federal infrastructure money to relocate a section of the city’s main transmission line.

The Sitka Assembly Tuesday night (6-27-23) authorized the administration to apply for $3 million dollars in grant funding from the US Department of Energy for a Thimbleberry Bypass Project.

While most of Sitka’s hydropower is delivered in overhead lines along roadways, there is a section that takes a shortcut over the hill to Heart Lake, down to Thimbleberry Lake, where it rejoins Sawmill Creek Road.

Utility director Scott Elder says that shortcut has been on his mind.

“About a decade ago, there was a slide that took that portion or a piece of that portion out of commission,” said Elder. “And since has been looked at as one of the critical assets that we need to replace, repair, or rethink.”

What might look like the obvious solution – installing poles and wires alongside Sawmill Creek Road in Silver Bay – was ruled out when the highway was rebuilt in 2014. Many residents objected to putting wires in the viewshed, and what little room there is beside the road is occupied by the city’s water main. That main was damaged during highway construction, forcing Sitka onto reserves for several days.

Elder said a consulting engineering firm put the Sawmill Creek Road option at the bottom of the list.

“There are several different options for the Thimbleberry bypass, including rerouting it aerially, over the same area, but away from slide zones, including going underground over the top, in through the slide side zone portion,” said Elder. “The most expensive case, proposed by the engineering firm that we’ve spoken with, would be going along street right-of-way, which is where we would love to go. But I think because of the cost, they’re involved in trying to stay outside of the road area, and try and get into the solid rock, and frankly, the dangers that we might have in damaging the water supply system to the town in going through that same area, make it look like the least friendly way of approaching.”

The US Department of Energy (Office of Clean Energy Demonstration Energy Improvements) is making $50 million dollars available to communities of less than 10,000 people. Elder believed $3 million dollars was a conservative ask, for a project that was “unglamorous.” Assembly members were interested, however, especially since no local match is required. Said Mayor Eisenbeisz, “ I think we can definitely put some makeup on that story and make this one work for them.”

Ron Vinson named Public Works director

And finally, the assembly on Tuesday approved the promotion of Ron Vinson from city asset manager, to public works director.

Vinson has been serving as interim public works director since former director Michael Harmon was reassigned as municipal engineer on May 1.

Vinson has an undergraduate degree in Civil Engineering, and is currently pursuing a professional civil engineering license. Administrator John Leach praised his work in asset management and called him an “excellent candidate” for public works director, saying “he’s brought a different approach to the way we’re doing our capital projects.”

Mayor Eisenbeisz said he was initially hesitant over the promotion, mainly because of the loss to asset management. But he, too, appreciated Vinson’s approach to the job during his interim service leading public works.

“When you put memos out, you put the positives and the negatives, you put the complete picture out,” Eisenbeisz said. “And that’s very important to me. I don’t want to be sold a single story, I want to be able to analyze the information given and come to my own conclusion.

Vinson’s salary as public works director will be $152,000 per year.