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PoV: Ketchikan exploring best port options


For full disclosure, I’m serving my second term on the Ketchikan City Council. These are my views and information I’ve gathered working on the cruise ship project, speaking only for myself as a resident, and not for the council.

The question I’ve heard a lot lately is, why solicit a port expansion Request for Proposals when most residents don't want more tourists? This RFP wouldn’t be looking at expansion; it’s about reconfigurating the port to accommodate ships already visiting Ketchikan.

The question should be: Why haven’t we investigated every opportunity that benefits our community with an RFP?

For the past 30 years we’ve given the cruise industry huge breaks in docking fees — as if they need a break. The three major cruise companies, Norwegian, Royal Caribbean, and Carnival, control up to 80% of a market worth nearly $80 billion and growing so fast that, by 2020, nearly 30 million people will take a cruise somewhere.

 Yet, because of maritime law, we cannot use fees that the city collects on things these ships and passengers use outside the port. Meanwhile, Ketchikan struggles to maintain infrastructure that isn’t built to withstand the mass numbers of tourists who use these services here: Emergency response (Fire, EMT, hospital), Wi-Fi, electric, sewage, garbage, public trails and roads.

First, the reconfiguration isn’t about adding ships, it’s so the current ships can accommodate passengers on and off the ship efficiently.

 So, when the Bliss arrives with its 5,000 passengers, it can have multiple access doors for passengers to use and have more time in town and on tours instead of waiting in line to exit and board.  

Next, you’ll hear that we shouldn’t have raised port fees because we make up for it by doubling passenger counts. Pay attention to whom is telling you this, and who they work for. I’m tired of the snake oil salesman’s pitch; it’s bull. It’s easy mathematics: The more passengers, the more pollution, garbage, electricity use, etc. Someone can sell this bill of goods only if they have something monetary to gain, and they don’t care about Ketchikan’s future so long as they get their’s.

I’m also sick of the “cruise industry will leave us and they can’t make any money” scare tactic. Consumers drive demand, and the demand wants to see Alaska — but not a destroyed, commercialized Alaska. If we don’t control how this industry exploits Southeast Alaska, people soon will see it as just another commercialized destination, and stop coming. Remember the $80 billion they make worldwide? These port fees are a drop in the bucket, just like the fines they’ve paid during the past 30 years after being caught many times for illegal dumping and polluting.

Third, a main reason for an RFP is we’d still control our port. But that means two things. One is that the money secured in the bid isn’t subject to the same maritime rules as the current head taxes. Based on our criteria, the winning bidder would be required to operate, maintain, and accomplish any dock reconfiguration approved by the city to accommodate larger vessels, in addition paying sales tax and the head tax.

Currently, we can only use the port fees and head tax to maintain the port, yet we have $11 million in corrosive maintenance that needs to be addressed; a water main that’s over 100 years old; and we had to ask in the October election to bond a project to replace part of a water main. The past year has brought multiple emergency fix-it jobs locally, as well as salary and wage issues that we can’t continue to kick down the road.

What if we could fund these projects with money collected from the port? What if we could offset our costs for electric, water, sewer, wages and desperately needed projects, too?  

I believe an RFP could shore up many of these projects and failing services without putting more pressure on community members.

Fourth, if we do this RFP and someone pays us, how will the money received be spent? I believe the council should develop a prioritized plan and begin working on projects that have been put off over the past 20-30 years. I also believe we should put funding away; invest it. Work to maintain our nonprofits, as well as working with the borough on affordable housing, and elders, disability and homeless assistance. Our community members who work, live and invest in our community shouldn’t be forced to move because they can’t afford services.

Fifth: Must we accept an RFP? No. If we get no good offers, we don’t have to accept a single RFP. When you go window shopping, you’re not required to buy anything. Why wouldn’t we at least see what’s out there? Why would we keep doing what we’ve always done, being scared into believing that we need them without trying to secure the best deal for Ketchikan?

Unfortunately, we have to come to terms with the current situation. We’ve made ourselves dependent on this cruise ship industry, but that doesn’t mean we shouldn’t start demanding more from the industry, and work to change the way we do business so that people can experience Ketchikan, Alaska and our amazing environment without destroying it.

It would be completely incompetent of us not to explore every avenue that could create the best economic and environmentally sound choice for our community.

Janalee Gage is a member of the Ketchikan City Council.