Win Gruening: Huna Totem dock project inches forward, Assembly decisions await

12
753

By WIN GRUENING

When I last wrote about Huna Totem Corporation’s cruise ship dock project in November, over four years had passed since the Juneau subport property on which the project was to be located was purchased by Norwegian Cruise Lines. Over 15 months had passed since Huna Totem Corporation took over the project, now named Aak’w Landing. Numerous studies, public meetings and permitting steps have transpired in the interim.

Now, as Aak’ Landing final approval inches closer to the finish line, the Juneau Assembly seems reluctant to commit its support and the naysayers have gotten more shrill.

After spending millions of dollars and years in the process, how much longer will the sponsors of the project be required to wait?

In August 2023, the Juneau Planning Commission authorized a conditional use permit for the dock project as well as approving a permit for the uplands improvements.

Shortly thereafter, Juneau resident Karla Hart appealed the Planning Commission decision citing inadequate public outreach and incomplete study and analysis. The Assembly agreed to accept the appeal and hired a hearing officer to adjudicate the case. More delay ensued when Hart objected to the appointment of the hearing officer who was eventually replaced.

Hart, a long-time anti-cruise activist, has made news before. In 2021, she filed a ballot petition that would have banned large cruise ships from coming to Juneau. The action would have resulted in, according to some estimates, a 74% decrease in cruise passengers and an annual loss of $162 million to Juneau businesses.

The petition failed to garner enough signatures to qualify for the ballot. 

But Hart hasn’t given up. She recently filed another petition to ban large cruise ships from Juneau on Saturdays and the 4th of July. But, not to worry because, as her group held a rally in Marine Park in early April to “greet” the first cruise ship of the season, Hart was quoted in the Juneau Empire as saying, “We’re not against anything…”

A decision on Hart’s appeal could be forthcoming during a scheduled Assembly meeting and executive session on April 29.

The recent welcome news that the US Coast Guard will homeport an icebreaker in Juneau has complicated the process in some people’s minds. Even though the icebreaker’s arrival is years away and faces additional planning and funding issues, it has been raised as another excuse for activists to justify delaying dock approval.

However, it appears that Coast Guard and cruise ship activities are compatible, and that the adjacent NOAA dock provides more than enough room for the proposed icebreaker.

So, the process grinds on as city officials seem hesitant to give the project the priority it deserves. 

Most significantly, the Assembly has continued to drag its feet on a decision to approve a lease of the city-owned tidelands that Huna Totem will need for the project.

The Assembly recently added another layer of bureaucracy to the process by realigning internal municipal responsibilities to allow supervision over cruise docks to the tourism director. Nevertheless, in removing the responsibility for reviewing the tidelands lease from the Docks and Harbors department, where it traditionally has resided, the Assembly now has the direct obligation to expedite the process. Any conditions the Assembly considers necessary can be included in the tidelands lease. There’s no reason to delay further deliberation and a decision on the lease.

The importance of this project cannot be overstated. The community’s aging and declining population signal problems ahead. Juneau’s cost of living is still a deterrent to would-be job hunters. Plummeting student populations have forced the Juneau School District to close schools and trim expenses.

To reverse these negative trends, Juneau’s economy must grow to spread the tax burden more widely and provide more jobs for young working families. 

While homeporting an icebreaker in Juneau will help, it won’t be nearly enough. Juneau needs the potential economic stimulus and tax revenues the $150 million private investment the Aak’w Landing project will bring to the community.

The irony is that the Aak’w Landing dock will actually help mitigate downtown congestion and reduce ship emissions, all with no increase in the number of large ships now visiting Juneau.

Isn’t that what the anti-cruise crusaders want?

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.

12 COMMENTS

  1. What the anti cruse idiots want is Wrangell. No economic growth, population outflow, and eventual community stagnation and death.

    Simple fact is, most of us don’t go downtown during the season except once or twice to hit Tracy’s and for end of season sales. It really doesn’t affect our lives.

    • Masked, I expect better of you. Your contention that downtown (tourism) activity “really doesn’t affect our lives” is like saying oil production at Prudhoe Bay doesn’t affect our lives. You know better.

      • Our day to day comings and goings. I wasn’t clear on that point. You a Juneauite, Wayne? If you are and your experiences are different, please give examples.

        Most of the people like who complain about this live lives here that almost never interact with the seasonal activities. Tourists and seasonal don’t tend to shop at IGA, wander into our neighborhoods, or visit local watering holes. They are in and out on tight deadlines and in very limited places. They pretty much exist on Franklin, the Glacier, or on whaleboats. Not where the bulk of us live and work.

        The regular whiners are NIMBY liberals who want Juneau as a dying liberal enclave they can call their own. Wine drinking, liberal Karens who exude an aura of self entitlement.

        Without the economic engine of tourism, this community becomes a less attractive Sitka, at best.

      • Oh, side point. Without the millions CBJ makes off tourism, we would be unable to afford our socialist daydreams and social programs. It’s ironic the anti tourism crowd wants to kill the economic engine that makes their fever dreams come true.

        • To be clear, the intent of my comment was to compare the positive economic effect tourism has on our lives with the positive effect Prudhoe oil production has. We agree upon the concept that tourism is a vital component of our economy–even more so with the ongoing decline and collapse of various other components. In Juneau since before statehood.

  2. I was born in Juneau at Saint Ann’s Hospital in 1959 and was a lifelong resident of southeast Alaska, most recently of Juneau since 1992. I sold all my holdings and left the region in the summer of 2023. Several things prompted that move but I have to say that the tourism industry and the way it is operated in Juneau was one of the chief reasons I gave up on Juneau.

  3. A true observation. However, there is growth in Wrangell, it is being cultivated by “Outsiders” considering the isolation as a welcome. Cheers

  4. Funny, the question the article raised for me was “What idiot thought Juneau is a good place to base an ice breaker?”. Seems like a Coast Guard base far closer to the ice would be a better place.

    • Honestly, I think it’s stupid myself.
      But we probably are the only community outside Anchorage who has enough infrastructure to handle it.

      • Avenger: Give me a break. Kodiak already supports several Cutters, an Air Station and a Communications Station and is the largest USCG base in the Nation and would have no problem adding an Ice Breaker to the local fleet. Dutch Harbor would likewise have no problem supporting an Ice Breaker.

Comments are closed.