By WIN GRUENING
“If everyone is thinking alike, then somebody isn’t thinking.” – George S. Patton.
This recent news item caught my attention.
“The Department of Transportation said Tuesday that four parties have expressed interest in the Malaspina, a mainline ferry that’s been a mainstay of the fleet since the 1960s. It’s the latest twist in the process initiated by the Dunleavy administration to unload an iconic state ferry that’s been idle for more than two years.”
Two of the interested buyers are private enterprises located in Ketchikan and Cordova. Reportedly, some of the ideas being considered would use the ship as a floating hotel/restaurant, a tourist venue or alternate housing for seasonal workers. The ferry has observation lounges, a heated solarium, a cafeteria-style restaurant, a movie lounge, showers, lounges, and a child’s play area in addition to 72 cabins with over 200 berths (plus crew quarters).
Sounds like some communities are thinking outside the box. Is Juneau?
In August, Juneau will host the first ever Alaska Ironman triathlon which attracts up to 1,500 athletes, families and friends. Housing issues are forcing participants to cancel and officials are actively soliciting residents to rent their homes during that time.
Looking at the CBJ Assembly’s adopted goals, housing has been the #1 priority for years. In fact, in December 2006, the Assembly held an Affordable Housing Summit. Ten years later in March 2016, the CBJ hired a “Chief Housing Coordinator” and in December 2016, adopted a Housing Action Plan that listed 66 strategies. What happened?
Apparently, Juneau has been less than successful at brain-storming new solutions to this complicated and persistent problem. It affects Juneau residents, legislators and staff, as well as those visiting for summer vacation or work.
Juneau’s housing challenge ties directly into its high cost of living and negatively impacts its recovering economy. Of immediate concern is the visitor industry.
The cruise industry is poised to return to Southeast Alaska in a big way in just a few weeks. Independent visitors are feeling free to travel again and the region should be an attractive destination. Initially, the overall numbers will be smaller than pre-pandemic visitation but they will continue to build over time.
Are we ready? Some very troubling signs indicate that we are not.
Anecdotally, the number of tourism businesses and the employees that staffed them are significantly reduced. Empty storefronts still line downtown streets and affordable accommodations are few and far between. Hiring new employees has reportedly been extremely difficult as the local pool has been severely depleted. Bringing new employees in from out-of-state requires an investment in recruiting, moving expenses, and housing. Hotel rooms are expensive and limited.
Seasonal workers like pilots, boat captains, bus drivers, tour guides, and grill cooks are needed to staff the visitor industry and they will not be easy to find. Housing availability, specifically, combined with some of the state’s highest urban cost of living components will make Juneau less attractive to potential employees.
Some longtime visitor venues may not be available or will have reduced operations. Without this critical infrastructure in place, visitors may find that capacity constraints will leave them few sightseeing options other than souvenir/gift shops. That situation will only serve to exacerbate downtown crowding and diminish the visitor experience.
On the positive side, the CBJ Assembly has taken a huge step (outside the box) in preliminarily approving an expansion of summer and winter operations for Eaglecrest Ski Area with the purchase of a gondola. This would come online in the summer of 2023 and will help disperse visitors, potentially eliminate the ski area subsidy, and provide a logical alternative for existing Eaglecrest employees to work year-round.
But the overall increased need for affordable housing (especially seasonal) has taken a back seat to splashy mega-projects like the Capital Civic Center and a new City Hall which, if built, are many years away and will divert funding that could be used to reduce taxes, stabilize our economic transition, and mitigate the housing crunch now.
These issues don’t go away by doing things the way we’ve always done them.
Innovation, not stagnation, is the key. Ketchikan and Cordova may be on to something.
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.