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Boro mulls Herring Cove: Sets hearing for ordinance to end tourism management plan

Daily News Staff Writer

The Ketchikan Gateway Borough Assembly on Monday took the first step toward ending the Herring Cove Tourism Management Program while the borough moves toward a replacement program with a different focus and a planning process meant to provide a framework for the area’s future.

During its regular meeting Monday, the Assembly voted unanimously to introduce proposed Ordinance 1878, which would eliminate the enforcement-focused tourism management plan that’s been in place since 2014, and also end the monetary fines that accompanied the plan. The proposed ordinance is scheduled for a public hearing and possible final approval at the Assembly’s next regular meeting on Feb. 19.

The borough established the existing program in response to continued growth of visitors at Herring Cove, most of whom arrive there via independent tour operators. In 2018, the program issued permits to 18 independent tour operators and employed “tourism compliance agents” whose duties include acting as crossing guards, tracking illegal tours, serving as ‘complaint liaisons’ between area residents and tour operators, and investigating and documenting permit violations.

However, the borough lacks key powers — such as public safety and roads — required for effective enforcement, and most of the properties involved are owned by the State of Alaska and private citizens.

Realizing the program’s effectiveness is limited, borough staff in January proposed a new, guest-oriented program that would provide “ambassadors” who would focus on public safety and information to visitors to the Herring Cove area. The Assembly approved that direction, and staff has issued a request for proposals for a company or entity interested in providing the ambassadors for the upcoming season.

The Assembly also approved a staff recommendation to conduct a neighborhood planning process in the Herring Cove area, a process intended to allow the “users and residents of the Herring Cove area to work in partnership to develop mutually agreeable solutions,” according to borough information. The plan also will be intended to “provide guidance” to property owners and borough entities “as they consider new development and uses in the cove.”

On Monday, the Assembly was in agreement that the existing enforcement program is ineffective.

“What we’ve been doing isn’t working, and we need to try something else,” said Assembly Member Judith McQuerry.

Assembly Member Sven Westergard echoed McQuerry’s comment, and added that he’d seen ambassador programs working very well in Philadelphia and elsewhere.

“So I think this is a good start in the right direction,” Westergard said.   

Assembly Member Rodney Dial agreed.

“This is the beginning of a process to improve this area for both residents and tourists,” he said.

Assembly members Alan Bailey and Felix Wong also voiced support for the new approach.

Bailey noted that this is a time of transition, citing the Alaska Department of Transportation’s plans to replace the Herring Cove bridge.

 “I think this softer approach certainly will make a lot more sense in this,” Bailey said. “... (It’s) for public safety and the safety for the visitors that are here. It’s not to fine them and say, ‘Enjoy the rest of your trip.‘ So I’m supportive of this.”

McQuerry asked Borough Planning Director Richard Harney about the time frame for accomplishing the neighborhood planning process.

Harney replied that the process is not in the borough budget yet, and wouldn’t be budgeted until the July 1 start of the next fiscal year. But while starting the process in July might be doable, that time period is right in the middle of the visitor season. In the past, tour operators have said they can’t participate during the season, said Harney.

“So there is about a four- to eight-week window after the season, before they decide to leave town, that we can maybe get some input from them,” Harney said.

McQuerry asked whether the ambassador program was going to be the approach taken this summer, and there might be further refinement to the program in 2020 after the neighborhood planning process is worked on late this summer or fall.

Harney replied that was partially correct, as the neighborhood plan isn’t necessarily part of the ambassador program. The program and planning process are going to work together in some ways, but the neighborhood plan could include zoning and other methods for change that the residents and tour operators come up with.

“I guess the point that I'm trying to make is,” McQuerry said, “if the residents of Herring Cove are not super happy with what happens this summer, it's not the last time they're going to have something to say about it.”

“That is an accurate statement,” Harney replied.

Borough Assistant Manager Deanna Thomas clarified that if the borough does not get any responses to its ambassador program request for proposals, “our intent would be to hire the ambassadors and have them work as temporary employees of the borough, if that's the direction that we have to go.”

With that, discussion on the topic ended. The Assembly voted 7-0 to introduce the ordinance and scheduled the public hearing and second reading on Feb. 19.

In other business Monday, the Assembly spent considerable time debating the potential benefits, possible pitfalls and other issues related to potential borough enrollment in the “Live Healthy” program offered through the National Association of Counties.

The potential for borough involvement in the program was first brought to the Assembly in January by Assembly Member AJ Pierce, who supported borough enrollment as a way to help lower health care costs for borough residents, all of whom would be able to participate in the program.

The Assembly postponed action on the resolution on Jan. 21 after a local pharmacist raised questions about the Live Healthy program.

Some of those questions persisted into Monday’s meeting during a long-running discussion that included a representative of the National Association of Counties and Borough Attorney Glenn Brown.

Among the issues was the potential availability of the discount benefits across medical, dental and pharmaceutical services in Ketchikan; whether the borough possesses the social services powers to be involved in it; whether the borough, through its participation in the program, would be endorsing particular providers; whether the program would encourage residents to seek services elsewhere; whether the borough would be devoting staff time, and thereby funding, to keep the program going; and others issues.

The prevailing idea was that the program had the potential to lower some health care costs for residents in a high-cost environment. Pierce, noting that the NACo representative said there were assembly members in other areas involved in overseeing their entities’ involvement program, volunteered to handle that function in Ketchikan.

 When it came time to vote, the tally split three to three — with McQuerry, Bailey and Assembly Member Sue Pickrell voting no, and Pierce, Wong and Westergard voting in support of the resolution.

Dial took a moment before casting the deciding vote in favor of enrolling the borough in the program. Later, during Assembly members comments, he explained his vote.

“So, tonight I voted to give the ‘Live Healthy’ program a chance, mainly because our health care costs on this island are so expensive, and, you know, if this can potentially help some people, I think it’s worth giving it a chance,” Dial said. “And it’s also with the understanding that if we develop any problems with this, we can discontinue our participation.”

In other business Monday, the Assembly approved the introduction of Ordinance 1871, which would, in part, allow for incentives to help the borough retain Borough Transit bus drivers in a competitive marketplace. A public hearing on the proposed ordinance will be on Feb. 19.