A Tourism Task Force is getting to work in Sitka. The volunteer group recently held its first “town hall” meeting to gather information from the public on the effects of the rapid growth of tourism in the last two years, and to help the municipal government to plan for the future.

Sitka’s Tourism Task Force was created by the assembly in the spring with hopes that the group could plan the city’s response to a rapidly growing tourism industry. The group was able to meet just a couple of times – mainly to organize itself – before the biggest cruise season in Sitka’s history kicked off, with 585,000 people visiting Sitka.  

Task force chair Phyllis Hackett said the busy summer season delayed the start of the group’s real work.

“I know there’s been a lot of comment that we waited a long time for this. Well, the majority of our members on the task force work within the industry, and they were really busy this summer, and we weren’t able to get a full complement of our task force to be able to work on this really, really important issue,” she said.

The task force has several directives from the assembly, before it reports its findings next spring– it’s been asked to look into everything from waterfront development and land use, to the level of cruise traffic in Sitka– and levels, specifically, were the focus of this meeting. The city partnered with Spruce Root to facilitate the event.

The task force opted for a novel format for the town hall meeting. Over the course of two hours, around 250 people moved through a room divided into four stations: community, recreation and environment, economic opportunities, and levels of cruise tourism. At each station, participants could write responses to survey questions on sticky notes, and talk with a member of the task force.

Task force member Jim Michener monitored the station focusing on the economic impacts of tourism. On a table next to him were a few questions, which participants could answer by dropping little blue tokens into slots.

“The increase in tax revenue from growing cruise tourism is good for city services, infrastructure,” Michener says, reading the first question on the sheet. “People can rate from ‘strongly disagree’ to ‘strongly agree’ and in between, and we can start to get actual numerical values from the community [about] how they feel on these different questions.”

At another station, Sitkans identified safety concerns in certain areas of town by placing stickers on a map. At another, they contributed to a word cloud describing Sitka’s character with and without tourists. Carrie Fenton’s word was “chaotic.”

“I’m really grateful that they opened a public forum,” Fenton said. “I think people have been wanting kind of an outlet to share how the season went for them, and I think there’s a lot of frustrations that I’ve felt, and I’ve heard around the community. So I think having a space to get meaningful feedback out there is feeling really good.”

Fenton liked the format of the event, and was particularly excited about a bean counting activity, where she was able to give feedback on the “most important aspect of managing the cruise industry” by dropping beans in jars. She put her beans into the “number of cruise ship passengers per day” jar.

“That is something that I’ve personally felt would be really helpful in the cruise season,” Fenton said. “I worked three jobs in the food service industry this summer…So I feel like that one is the most visible for me. And it did feel really clarifying and good to see that that also had the most number of beans when I walked by,” she added. “I feel like that’s on everyone’s mind.”

For others, placing sticky notes and dropping beans didn’t quite capture their feelings. Gary Downey owns Captain Gary’s Sitka Adventures, a local tour company. He felt like the event didn’t give participants enough opportunities to express positives of tourism in Sitka.

“Going around to the different booths I just saw, you know, what were the negatives? I was kind of a little bit thrown off, I thought it was gonna be a little bit different,” Downey said. “But it’s what it is, and I appreciate that people came together to do their thing.”

Downey said he hoped there would be more opportunities for residents to share out their perspectives in a more traditional town hall setting.

“I just think that we need to consider tourism as being a good economic driver for our city,” Downey said. “But we also need to figure out ways to spread the people out, and try to just figure out what we can do to keep a good strong economy for the city of Sitka,” he added. “Because we have over the years struggled, and this year we have money in our general fund. And I think that’s a good, positive thing.”

Later in the week, the task force met again to debrief the town hall – and literally weigh the beans. Although most felt the format worked, some thought the data they captured had largely missed key subsets of Sitka, like young people.

The task force plans for a second open house on December 7 as well as a more conventional town hall meeting later in the winter.

For purposes of disclosure, KCAW co-general manager Rich McClear holds a seat on the city’s tourism task force.