Win Gruening: Aak’w Landing, Juneau’s most promising project

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By WIN GRUENING

The announcement last August by Norwegian Cruise Lines that it would donate the waterfront land it owned in downtown Juneau to Huna Totem Corporation took many by surprise.

The 2.9-acre parcel, located in the “subport” area adjacent to Juneau’s Coast Guard facilities, was purchased by Norwegian for $20 million in 2019 for development as a new cruise ship dock and terminal. During the planning process, Norwegian executives realized it was more sensible for local Alaskans to steer the project and “that Huna Totem, owned entirely by Native Alaskans, was the right stakeholder to lead this effort.” In return, Norwegian will secure preferential use of the pier after construction, estimated to be completed by the 2025 tourism season.

This unexpected change promises to benefit Juneau in a variety of ways, turning the development, named Aak’w Landing, into a locally-owned and managed enterprise with cultural ties to Juneau and Southeast Alaska.

Towards that end, Huna Totem is partnering with Goldbelt Corporation, Juneau’s Alaska Native urban corporation. Huna Totem has promised that Aak’w Landing would be open year-round, would not require any zoning variances and would offer facilities and amenities that locals as well as visitors could enjoy.

Contrary to some naysayers, an additional cruise ship dock wouldn’t increase visitors or congestion. In fact, the project, coupled with proposed adoption of recommendations to prohibit “hot berthing” of large cruise vessels and limit capacity in Juneau’s harbor to five large cruise ships, would cap large ships at existing levels and disperse cruise passengers more evenly.

Since August, conceptual plans have been developed and shared in recent public meetings. These are a starting point and, in addition to steps required by permitting agencies, community outreach is planned to give Juneau residents additional opportunities to provide suggestions.

The initial phase of the project to be permitted and constructed over the next two years is a cruise ship berth connected to an elevated, curved trestle leading up to a 10,000 sqft welcome center. The surrounding area would include local shops, restaurants and one-acre park with a performing stage. Underground parking for buses and cars would be provided. Curated traffic flows would separate visitors disembarking from the ship with those using the integrated seawalk. Infrastructure for future shore power installation would be incorporated into the construction.

In a future phase, land is available for another 35,000 sqft of what Huna Totem terms “flex space”, the use of which will be determined by community input.  It could house conference accommodations, a science or ocean center, cultural facility or, perhaps a combination of these. Apartments and a hotel have also been mentioned.  

Aak’w Landing will not only tell the story of Alaska Natives and their historic ties to Juneau’s lands and waters, but do it in a way that respects the values and culture of the community, preserves existing viewsheds, and provides additional facilities and open space for downtown Juneau.

Juneau can be thankful that Huna Totem has the experience, leadership, and willingness to invest in a project of this magnitude.  Icy Strait Point, a major cruise destination built by Huna Totem in the neighboring village of Hoonah accommodates 510,000 cruise visitors annually.  It hosts two cruise ship docks, two gondolas, and the world’s largest zipline experience along with restaurants, retail stores and associated tours and is used by the community year-round. Huna Totem is also partnering on a new cruise ship dock in Whittier as well as a small cruise dock and terminal in Klawock.

Huna Totem’s partner, Goldbelt Corporation, has extensive experience in Juneau’s visitor industry having built and operated the Mount Roberts Tramway for over 25 years.

The partners’ expertise, combined with trusted relationships forged with cruise lines, bodes well for a successful venture and will gift the Capital City with a world-class facility.

The temptation, however, for city staff and the Juneau Assembly to micromanage the project will be intense. The Assembly’s role should be primarily limited to approving the tidelands lease and, as long as the project complies with existing zoning regulations and municipal ordinances, we should expect permits to be granted.

Now, more than ever, Juneau needs the jobs, tax revenue, and stability for working families this private investment would provide.

After retiring as the senior vice president in charge of business banking for Key Bank in Alaska, Win Gruening became a regular opinion page columnist for the Juneau Empire. He was born and raised in Juneau and graduated from the U.S. Air Force Academy in 1970. He is involved in various local and statewide organizations.

Reasons for ballot rejection: Signatures, postmarks

Win Gruening: Juneau muni elections outcome should give the Assembly pause about new City Hall

14 COMMENTS

  1. In other words, a mixing of graft and a huge middle finger to Sealaska.
    Nobody gives away $20 million of prime real estate without getting a major something.

  2. So what they’re trying to say is that Norwegian Cruiselines is hemorrhaging cash and needs as many tax write offs as possible.

    It is yet to be seen if the property will contain a section telling the story about how the United States Government finally ended the practice of slavery in southeast Alaska. Huna Totem and Goldbelt Corporation will not be asked during any of the land acknowledgement ceremonies they demand during government meetings.

  3. How many times have you heard someone get off a cruise ship, or an airplane, and say… excuse me do you know where I can go to further educate myself on local indigenous cultures? Zero times. And I have been in Juneau 30 years. Zero times I have heard anyone request that or anything close. Maybe the native corporation should hire someone that can guide them in the right direction on selling to the tour industry. If that’s the business they are seeking to get into.

    • Huna Totem is extremely successful. They did exactly what you are suggesting and market themselves accordingly.

      The Tlingit experience is baked in to everything they do.

      Are you one of the locals who wishes to see the cruise industry gone? They tend to be very myopic in how they see tourists and avoid interaction.

      A very large percentage of tourists do want exposure to local culture or they would not spend the obscene amounts they do to travel. Local culture is sorta the point.

  4. Not sure what the Assembly’s role would be in a Tidelands lease. Any development below MHW is administered by the State of Alaska and the US Army Corps of Engineers. In a typical shoreside development the biggest controversy is generally who pays for the landside infrastructure improvements needed for the development.

    • Any development below MHW would not be administered by the State of Alaska if the State conveyed said tidelands and submerged lands to the local municipality. Which in this case they did and to the City and Borough of Juneau per AS 38.05.825; back in the 60’s according to the State’s records.

  5. Norwegian Cruise Lines knows which way the political winds are blowing in Alaska. This is a very smart move that ensures there will no headwinds to deal with during the construction of the project – similar to 10% goes to the “Big Guy!”

  6. The current events surrounding this property demonstrate the brilliance of business leaders at Norwegian, HunaTotem and Goldbelt. These people are making earnest efforts to strengthen the economy in Juneau. In fact, Huna Totem was the key player putting Hoonah on the tourism map. Its great that Hoonah is now offering serious competition to Juneau. If Juneau Borough officials stumble in the market, Hoonah will take the lead. More power to them. Fortune favors the bold.

  7. It’ll be interesting to see whether this project turns into a debacle like the Port of Anchorage.
    .
    If Huna Totem and Goldbelt Corporation were serious about extracting money year round from more than 510,000 tourists, they’d build a couple of gambling casinos.
    .
    Who knows, maybe casinos are included in this “future phase”.
    .
    Government and gambling, the two cottage industries keeping Juneau alive.
    .
    Might be fun to watch the two try to live together without eating each other.

    • Exactly where is the gambling? I’m off tomorrow. Pull tabs don’t count.

      I think you’re confusing gambling with weed. We may have more weed stores than gas stations.

      • Thought if people asked nicely, the Native Corp might build a casino or two to keep everyone happy year round.
        .
        Who needs gas stations when people got weed, casinos, and government to keep them happy?

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