Win Gruening: How the Juneau cruise ballot initiative process went so wrong



Most people probably didn’t notice the correction to a Juneau Empire opinion piece by cruise initiative sponsor Sue Schrader that was published on the weekend of April 24.  

Schrader urged passage of three initiatives seeking to block large cruise vessels and slash the number of cruise passengers visiting Juneau.  

She declared that Disney Cruises had stated they could easily accommodate the proposed changes in the initiatives. That turned out to be false and the Empire published a correction within days. 

The same op-ed proclaimed that the city’s Visitor Industry Task Force “recommended many expensive infrastructure projects that benefit the cruise ship industry, but that Juneau will pay for.”  The author failed to mention that these projects would also benefit residents and be paid for with passenger fees collected from the cruise lines for that purpose.

Kim Metcalfe, another initiative sponsor, authored an Empire My Turn complaining about “problems caused by 22,000-visitor days” in 2019. A study conducted by Juneau Economic Development Council charting projected 2022 cruise passenger volumes throughout the day reveals that this number is grossly misleading. In fact, ship scheduling has limited the number of onshore passengers during the week to between 5,000 and 15,000 per day.  Only Monday, Tuesday, and Wednesday are projected to exceed 10,000 passengers at any one time with the remaining days averaging around 7,500 passengers during peak hours.

Hyping the cruise visitor numbers is part of the anti-cruise strategy. The Facebook page of the group backing the initiatives contends that without limits, along with an additional dock, Juneau “could top three million (visitors) with just one ship at each dock each day for a 150-day season.”

Are these examples of “opinions” or are the authors presenting them as “facts”?

Corrections to opinion pieces are rare.  After all, in America we believe in free speech and when we see misstatements of facts – whether by design or ignorance – we often roll our eyes and try to correct the record with an opposing opinion piece.  However, that doesn’t carry the weight or credibility of an editor’s official correction.

The referenced initiatives would prevent cruise ships (except those with fewer than 250 passengers) from docking in Juneau on Saturdays and, on other days, limit their hours in port to between 7 a.m. and 7 p.m.  In addition, all cruise ships over 100,000 gross tons would be totally banned beginning in 2026. 

As discussed in my previous column, based on an analysis of the 2022 cruise schedule, these initiatives would effectively reduce passenger numbers by about one million visitors, to the level experienced almost 30 years ago, and shrink passenger spending in Juneau businesses by $162 million per year.  This would jeopardize tens of millions of dollars in municipal tax revenue and decimate Juneau’s economy and city budgets.

Yet, initiative supporters claim these are just “modest” proposals seeking to “balance” the industry, an industry they assert contributes little and leaves Juneau “the crumbs”. 

How can these allegations be supported when the facts indicate otherwise?

Therein lies the problem with the ballot initiative process, a process easily  abused with unrealistic ideas masquerading as reasonable reforms.  The campaign to pass an initiative then provides a platform for activists to promote every misconception, distortion, and fallacy possible. 

All three of these initiatives were apparently drafted without much, if any, research on how they would impact Juneau’s economy.  The drafters chose to bypass the elected Assembly and their Visitor Industry Task Force as well as the community process (Tourism Best Management Practices) that has been in place since 1997 addressing visitor industry impacts.

The campaign rhetoric is just beginning.  As petition signature-seekers continue to ratchet up the emotional arguments, will they continue to ignore facts?

There is nothing inherently wrong with suggesting ways to mitigate visitor impacts.  But ballot initiatives are not the best vehicle for dealing with complicated issues that require facts and deliberation to achieve well-thought-out policy.

Apparently, petition sponsors didn’t care enough to explore the consequences of these initiatives.  Their extreme proposals are evidence of that.

But Juneau voters should care enough not to sign on to this ill-conceived effort. 

After retiring as the senior vice president in charge of business banking for Key Bank in Alaska, Win Gruening began writing op-eds for local and statewide media. 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 and currently serves on the board of the Alaska Policy Forum.


  1. I will be voting against the three initiatives for some of the reasons outlined by Win in his column. In addition to the factual issues Gruening points out as being problematic and the apparent lack of consideration about the negative economic impacts enactment of the measures would likely produce, there are serious constitutional problems with at least one of the proposed initiatives.
    All that said, it is wrong to demonize the proponents of the initiatives. Here is the deal: Nobody wakes up some morning in Juneau or any other jurisdiction that affords the citizens the opportunity to engage in direct lawmaking and they decide without some basis in fact to go through the drudgery of writing up a proposed law, gathering signatures to get the measure on the ballot and then campaign get the measure passed by the voters.
    In most cases, citizens resort to use of the initiative process as a reaction to inaction and a failure on the part of their elected officials to deal with a problem. That more-or-less characterizes why Juneau voters are being asked to advance a series of legal restrictions related to cruise vessel activities. The elected officials of the City & Borough and in some instances the appointed officials tasked with addressing cruise ship operations in Juneau and mitigating the impacts of large-scale industrial tourism have done a mediocre job at addressing and solving issues that are both obvious and have been growing for years. This systemic failure on the part of the political caste in Juneau is the biggest reason the community is getting wracked by a political campaign.
    For various reasons, the initiatives are not likely to pass but the real issue to pay attention to is whether the pols and bureaucrats running Juneau will figure out how to thoughtfully work on behalf of the citizens they serve and come up with a plan that involves the industry that addresses the obvious problems.
    Might happen. Might not. Time will tell.

  2. Emotion trumps facts, politics trumps science. Whether Pebble, COVID, oil industry, tourism or any issue, progressives interject their deluded fantasies to mislead and scare the uninformed. They would return the masses to the stone age and still be unsatisfied with their agenda.

    Remember that tourism was to replace industrial production in the Alaska economy. But as quickly as they kill mining and the oil industry they also try to kill tourism. A generation ago the Yukon was a mining powerhouse. Now it is a bottomless pit of Canadian welfare with nearly all the high paying jobs destroyed. Progressives killed Pebble largely with lies, they’re trying to kill oil, they want to limit tourism. Will we be left with no options but to stand on the street corner with hands out to garner pity from Soros types? One Flew Over The Cuckoo’s Nest.

  3. Tourism beat industry out because salvaging what industry we had, and creating the political and physical environment for encouraging new industry was directly in opposition to “bridges to nowhere” and other schemes which lined the pockets of the CBC.
    The billions wasted and lost to boondoggles could have paid for power generators on the slope, with HVDC throughout Alaska. The petroleum and extraction industries could have been guaranteed abundant and clean energy, which would have given the state control over unsafe practices. Server farms could have located here. We could have had mineral and other refining here, instead of shipping crude and concentrates. We could have become a Value Added Retailer state.
    Just like Norway, we could have had a trillion dollars in our PF. But no. We just have to keep voting for the politicians who most closely resemble ourselves. We are everything that our politicians show to the world that we are. We are the CBC……………………………

  4. Just to add: If we had a trillion dollars in our PF, our PFD’s would be in the range of 60/90 thousand dollars apiece, every year. And yes, just like the Native corporations, we could have closed out any new applicants.

  5. Reply to AK: Science and financing killed the Pebble mine prospect, not the libs, progessives or greens or whatever you are referring to in your posting. Get a grip or consider changing your meds.

  6. Joe Geldhof, ‘science’ is synonymous with politics today. Remember ‘The Coming Ice Age Of 1975’? Yeah, ‘A consensus of scientists agree’. ‘By the year 2000 the three foot rise in oceans will flood ocean side cities’. Yeah, follow the money and there, any more, you will find the ‘scientist’ politician on the take. It is a sad state that we have deteriorated to. Leftist activists killed Pebble, are trying to kill all oil and mining and now, irony of ironies, are trying to limit tourism (in Juneau). Pebble will be developed one day, hopefully as responsibly as those who promoted it the last time. And for the record, I have no horse in this race. It does not affect me either way except that I like to see people have opportunity for productive lives in productive jobs and not on the destructive government teat. A society cannot exist based upon service jobs and sales of things made elsewhere. There are two types of creatures: producers and parasites. I guess that you show your colors which you prefer. We need to produce, responsibly, and at every opportunity we need to value add so that our economy grows with productive people in good productive jobs. And remember, under Trump, for the first time in a generation we exported oil.

    • Politics can certainly get involved as you’ll remember that even the Trump administration vetoed this Pebble mine at the end. And I agree that those minerals in Pebble deposit will likely be developed on day, but not until it can be done without destroying that entire river system. Pebble folks thought they could mitigate that loss by giving money towards locals other issues and were shot down completely. For their own reasons they also felt they had the pols in their back pocket and you saw how that worked out for them.

  7. Geldhof: The “science” was proven in court to be false. To claim a totally fabricated hit piece as “science” is to repeat a lie, often enough until it becomes “truth”.

  8. Suzanne: Why does Joe Geldhof have two different icons? Are they two different commentators? Mine has stayed the same ever since you started using them.

    • Not sure, but maybe he used a different email address. That would do it. Those icons are automatically generated by this site. – sd

  9. Bill Yankee, I hope that you are correct about development coming under better circumstances. And you are absolutely correct about dirty politics trending both ways. Red/blue continuously compete in the corruption race to the bottom, and too many of the uninformed masses have no idea for what they vote. Harsher jails and more use of them for corrupt politicians and corporate executives would be a start to cleanse the system. But I doubt that it ever happens.

  10. Never accept what the Juneau Empire publishes as fact, with the exception being the small sports page and weather. I am surprised they corrected themselves. It would be interesting to follow the money trail on these initiatives, I feel its safe to assume a small percentage of funding is Alaskan. We must all be vigilant on these initiatives, Washington state got killed with these things.

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