Location of cruise ship dock divides Hoonah

Published on NewsOK Modified: April 20, 2014 at 4:36 am •  Published: April 20, 2014

HOONAH, Alaska (AP) — They have the same goal but different ideas about how to get there.

In Hoonah, the debate over a cruise ship dock has turned family members against each other in an argument about who will benefit from the millions of dollars spent by cruise tourists each year.

Huna Totem Corporation and some Hoonah residents want a cruise ship dock at Point Sophia, where Huna Totem has a complex of shops, restaurants, and a base for activities called Icy Strait Point.

Other residents want it at Shaman Point, which is on city property closer to town and businesses unaffiliated with Huna Totem.

Earlier this year, Mayor Seferino "Nino" Villareal vetoed a proposal to withdraw city support of the Shaman Point site. The city council successfully pushed to override that veto.

City councilman Bob Starbard, who led the push in favor of Icy Strait Point, said he preferred not to look at the issue as "one versus the other."

"The issue for us - myself and others - was that the dock be built," he said. "Each of the sites has its deficits. Each of the sites has its benefits ... the actions I proposed, the ultimately the city council agreed to, was to build it where the cruise lines said they would dock. That's about as simple as I can lay it out."

Vice mayor Mary Erickson, who voted against the veto override, said she feels a location at Icy Strait Point takes something away from Hoonah residents. The winter weather at the exposed point means the dock will either have to be moved after every tourist season, or residents won't be able to use it then, she said.

"I'm all for tourism," she said. "We're all Huna Totem shareholders. But for them to try to take something away from the community to benefit them is wrong. This was meant for the whole community, not a couple hundred people."

Icy Strait or Shaman Point?

Hoonah residents have been waiting a long time for their new dock.

A state grant for the project has been frozen twice; the debates have taken so long that the state has already taken $2 million from the project in order to spend it elsewhere.

The state "multi-use deep water marine berthing facility project" grant, to be administered through the city of Hoonah, was first granted years ago. Then-Mayor Alf R. "Windy" Skaflestad set the city's goals in a 2011 letter: "The City of Hoonah will provide a public dock, specifically a deep water berthing facility, in Hoonah, which will allow for a variety of uses on a year-round basis, where such uses will provide economic benefits to the residents of Hoonah and the region."

That letter didn't name a site; Skaflestad asked the city council to "keep focused on our goals and objectives" while making a decision on location.

Mary Erickson said she's been "singing the same song" for years.

"We've been singing the same song from day one, and our tune has not changed," she said. "This is public money."

Tourists aren't new to Hoonah. They've been visiting for years. After the turn of the century, however, the pace of business quickened.

In 2001, Huna Totem broke ground at Icy Strait Point and began advertising it as a destination. Cruise ships started frequenting the community of 750 people.

The original Icy Strait Point plan, said Huna Totem Corporation President and CEO Larry Gaffaney, called for construction of a pier in 2003 or 2004.

"This was our tenth 2004," he said.

Icy Strait Point is about 1.5 miles up an oceanside road from downtown Hoonah. About 1,000 feet before it arrives at ISP, the road runs past Shaman Point, where cruise ships currently anchor and send passengers ashore by tender. The tenders run directly to ISP.

In 2012, the Alaska Department of Commerce, Community and Economic Development froze funding for the pier because a cruise line objected to the city-owned site at Shaman Point. Then, things got complicated.

The letter also said that site 1 - at ISP - would not be feasible "due to local environmental conditions."

That's something Erickson said she worries about.

"Take a look at what happened in Gustavus," she said.

In January, a series of winter storms battered the breakwater in the community that serves Glacier Bay National Park. The breakwater, built in 2010, broke under the strain, limiting its ability to protect the town's pier.

Villareal has said it is "highly unlikely" that Hoonah residents will be able to use the dock year-round at the ISP location. When winter storms move in, the site is too exposed.

Starbard said the dock might be moved in the winter but that hasn't yet been determined.

Gaffaney said a dock built at ISP would operate year-round.

In a Sept. 2011 letter cited by the state when it froze funding, Craig Milan, a senior vice president for Royal Caribbean Cruises Ltd., was straightforward about his company's preference: "We do not see any advantages to locating a cruise ship dock anywhere other than at Icy Strait Point," he wrote. "The Shaman Point location under consideration provides no benefit to us or our passengers."

He cited a boat captain as saying the Shaman Point location would require an extra hour of maneuvering compared to the Point Sophia location.

In response to the state's decision, Mayor Villareal wrote that city administrator, Marlene Duvall, had spoken with the same captain, who "assured (her) that their (Royal Caribbean's) fleet has the technological and mechanical ability to dock at Shaman Point."

He said no representative from Royal Caribbean had contacted the city, seen a copy of the engineer's presentation, "or in any way asked for more detailed information ... other cruise line businesses have ships that have and will call in our community ... none of these businesses have communicated any objection to the city's location decision," he wrote.