Win Gruening: Juneau Assembly review of dock proposal raises questions of conflict

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By WIN GRUENING

At a Dec. 19 Committee of the Whole work session, Juneau City Manager Rorie Watt requested the Assembly approve an appropriation for $200,000 (subsequently raised to $300,000) for a study of the optimal location of a cruise ship dock at the downtown subport property.  That request will be up for comment and approval at the next regular Juneau Assembly meeting on January 30.

The redundant study, according to the request, will aid the city in taking the planning lead for any new dock plans and is in “the best interests of the port, Juneau and the cruise ship industry.”

In fact, it’s only in the best interests of a few naysayers.

While the request is couched in general terms to advance dock planning for Juneau’s port, it’s unquestionably targeting Huna Totem Corporation’s cruise ship dock proposal (Aak’w Landing) located on the downtown waterfront.

The action raises serious questions of conflict about the city’s role in approving portions of that project. It doesn’t appear that anyone knows what the study will eventually cost or how detailed it will be. But it will likely delay development by giving city staff a vehicle to micro-manage every aspect of the private investment and perhaps eventually kill it.

It wouldn’t be the first time that has happened.  In 2019, the Archipelago Project was hailed as a model public-private partnership.  It would have transformed an unimproved gravel lot on the South Franklin waterfront into 20,000 square feet of prime commercial space. It addressed ways to manage cruise passenger congestion while adding revenue to property and sales tax coffers. Eventually it was shelved over stalled negotiations regarding the excessive number of required parking spaces. It was a giant opportunity lost and this premier downtown property still sits vacant today.

It seems as if the Assembly is more inclined to meddle rather than limit their primary role to general oversight and, in this case, approving the tidelands lease. As long as this project (or any project) complies with existing zoning regulations and municipal ordinances, the expectation should be that permits would be granted.

With this project, the perception is exactly opposite. City staff have publicly stated their preference that all docks on the waterfront be owned and controlled by the borough. 

Therein lies the conflict.  

Tourism Manager, Alix Pierce, formally recommended to the Assembly that the Manager “enter into discussions with the owners of the private docks to create a pathway to municipal management of the waterfront. Methods that should be explored include dock acquisition (friendly or even adversarial) or other creative methods.” (emphasis added).

The city is still smarting from losing the bid for the subport property in 2019 after placing dead last out of five bidders. Pressured by anti-cruise activists to reject the dock project, assembly members recently voted to delay adopting cruise ship tourism policy objectives recommended by the Visitor Industry Task Force (VITF) to allow more public comment. The report recommendations have been endlessly debated for several years and include limiting the number of large cruise ships, reducing congestion, electrifying docks, mitigating emissions, and allowing CBJ input on ship scheduling.

Delaying action, dreaming up duplicative studies, and perhaps levying unnecessary requirements that the city deems beneficial will be cheered by some as an opportunity to slow-roll the project, hoping it becomes unfeasible, allowing the city to ultimately take control or ownership of the property.

The Assembly’s anxiety about major city waterfront development is understandable but that should not interfere with evaluating and approving private projects like this.  There will be ample opportunities along the way to review plans and suggest modifications. Unfortunately, the default position at the city seems to be “how can we throttle this project back?”

Aak’w Landing has the potential to attract an estimated $150 million in private investment when all phases are complete.  It supports the goals listed in the VITF Report. Second-guessing by the city at this early stage is inappropriate.

If city leaders continue to brainstorm ways to obstruct this venture, the community of Juneau risks losing a privately funded world-class development that furthers the Assembly’s stated goal of assuring Juneau has a vibrant, diverse, local economy.

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

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Win Gruening: Juneau Christmas, past and present

8 COMMENTS

  1. Juneau has sold its soul to four months of out of state money hungry tourist businesses. Grab the cash and leave for the winter. The mentality of half of alaska.

    • Take away tourism and Juneau rapidly becomes Wrangell, or maybe Sitka if lucky.

      If you liked how Covid killed businesses in our community, you’ll love it if tourism went away. Tourism impacts every business from Trove to Freddy.

      Besides, we settled this issue about 18 months ago when the stupid attempt to cap boats and visitors was brutally shot down.

      If you really want to live the “pristine” Alaskan life, I suggest Ft Yukon or Chicken.

  2. CBJ would rather lose the whole thing outright than lose control of it.

    It’s a dichotomy for them. They need the money it would bring but it goes against their natural inclination to meddle.

    This, IMO, is why Norwegian gave the land to Huna Totem. Harder for CBJ to obstruct a native corporation than an out of state company.

    Can’t help wondering if Sealaska’s hand is guiding this whole mess.

  3. It is so good to see Juneau suffering the same fate as Anchorage*. Woke Assembly, woke public easily manipulated by the media to comply (aka dont complain), woke ASSembly members plow over our rights (we are their surfs in case you were wondering about our role) with their pettiness… yeah, welcome to WOKE. Now my fellow Alaskans, WAKE UP! *sarcasm

    • What’s really good to see here Molly is that Juneau has elected an Assembly that works as intended-essentially to see that the majority does matter (elections have consequences). What rights of yours is being plowed over here Molly?

    • If you lived here you’d know our assembly (sadly) represents the wishes of our community. We are left of center, and the make up of the assembly reflects it.

      It is interesting to note how the good progressives here get bent out of shape when the Assembly jacks up millage rates to pay for the utopia they keep voting for.

      Why someone would wish the hell of Anchorage on anyone else is … sad.

  4. They could have a tougher time as native corporations typically choose profits and prosperity over wokeness. Our assembly is corrupt and only consider their wants. They raise property taxes exponentially in the name of equity and equality with no regard for businesses and those affected. No environmental considerations will be heeded when they build their new palatial city hall.

  5. This would be the same municipality that opposed residents and built a parking garage on the valuable Juneau waterfront, then built a city library on top of that parking garage, after Juneau residents voted against it three times? This is the same municipality so concerned about marine habitat on precious tide flats that it conducted permit less land prep and fast-tracked construction of a Police Station on Lemon Creek tide flats? This is the same municipality that cut down prominent eagle perch trees (overlooking Egan/Vanderbuilt intersection) to accommodate the construction of the Juneau Pioneer Home? This is the same municipality that knowingly let the Bonnie Brea subdivision on Douglas Island discharge raw sewage into Gastineau Channel for ten years while imposing fines on visiting cruise ships for improper discharge of waste and/or air pollution? We won’t even discuss the Valley waste treatment plant that hasn’t functioned since the then Mayor pushed it through the Assembly. Should we even discuss the bronze whale fountain that nobody wanted, and the CBJ illegally purchased with visitor tax funds? How about the used gondolas for Eaglecrest the CBJ is already into for $10M so far? This is what Juneau elected an Assembly to oversee?

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