By WIN GRUENING
Like all communities in Alaska, Juneau is looking forward to emerging from the pandemic stronger and healthier than before. After a year of hunkering down it’s time to start gearing up to rebuild our relationships, schools, and businesses and get our lives back to normal.
Why would anyone support actions that would accomplish just the opposite?
I’m referring to the three proposed initiatives amending Juneau’s City Charter to limit cruise ship tourism. These initiatives would permanently extend the crushing economic consequences wrought by the pandemic that, up to now, have been partially mitigated by temporary federal funding.
- The first would ban cruise ships with over 250 passengers between 7 p.m. and 7 a.m.
- The second would ban cruise ships over 250 passengers on Saturdays.
- The third would ban cruise ships over 100,000 gross tons beginning in 2026.
The initiative language appears simple but obscures the harmful ramifications for local businesses and residents.
Initiative backers assert that these “modest” proposals only seek industry “balance and restraint”. They also contend cruise impacts have been ignored by local leaders.
Neither of these claims hold water.
Besides, it won’t be the cruise lines that suffer the most should these initiatives pass. It will be Juneau tourism businesses, restaurants, and retailers and hundreds of their employees who take the hit.
Ship arrivals and departures are staggered for navigational safety. Cutting ship hours will delay arrivals and require ships to begin boarding crew and passengers for departure as early as 4:30 pm. Who loses? Our shore excursion workers, downtown cooks, wait staff, dishwashers, bartenders, and shopkeepers who will have fewer customers to serve. Local longshoremen, cab and shuttle drivers and food truck entrepreneurs will lose wages and fewer Juneau students will be able to find summer jobs.
Restricting Saturday port calls will force some ships to bypass Juneau entirely because minimal dock space is available on other weekdays.
But the large ship ban will have the most serious effect. While these ships comprise only 1/3 of the fleet, they carry 2/3 of all arriving passengers.
If these initiatives pass, the industry estimates cruise visitation could plunge by over one million passengers by 2026, to around 350,000, the number we hosted nearly 30 years ago. Based on historical passenger spending patterns, that translates to an annual loss of $162 million to Juneau businesses.
The CBJ budget will be decimated, and current levels of community services and amenities reduced. The city receives around 20% of its sales tax revenue from cruise passenger spending, plus $16 million in passenger fees, and another $1 million in various taxes, fees and permits. Add local property taxes from visitor-related businesses and these initiatives will mean smaller city budgets, less support for our hospital, schools, police, and firefighters, and possible city layoffs.
Restaurants and retail outlets now able to stay open year-round because of summer tourism will be forced to close part of the year – some will go bankrupt.
Most Juneau residents and elected officials understand that a healthy economy requires trade-offs which is why city leaders have been responsive to citizen concerns. Mayor Weldon’s Visitor Industry Task Force recently concluded an exhaustive and inclusive process that solicited public testimony over a period of six months. The Assembly is now reviewing the VITF draft report and plans to begin implementing recommendations addressing industry impacts.
Furthermore, the proposed initiatives undermine years of collaboration the city and the industry have engaged in since 1997 with the Tourism Best Management Practices (TBMP) program – seen as a model by other Southeast communities that host visitors.
The eleven initiative sponsors justify short-circuiting the work of the citizen-backed task force by saying voters are entitled to decide three questions that neither the public nor the Assembly had a voice in formulating.
Opinion pieces published by initiative sponsors already contain misrepresentations and distortions of fact. Undoubtedly, the campaign to collect the 3,000 signatures necessary to get these initiatives on the ballot will continue to devolve into an emotional, fact-free litany of misconceptions and half-truths about the industry.
The current deliberative process is working and should be respected. Why scuttle it with a divisive and expensive community battle?
Much is at stake. As a Juneau voter, before you sign a petition, please get the facts and consider the consequences.
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.