It was close, but the Ketchikan City Council’s recent 4-3 vote to approve $20,000 to co-fund a community tourism strategy project with the Ketchikan Gateway Borough was the right thing to do.

It was the right thing in 2019 when first proposed by the borough and agreed to by the city. The potential usefulness of a community tourism strategy has not been diminished by the novel coronavirus pandemic that shelved the project in 2020. If anything, the pandemic has increased the value of a community strategy for moving Ketchikan forward when the large cruise ships return.

Back in 2019, the future of Ketchikan’s cruise economy was stellar, with nothing but upward trends in sight.

Until that time, cruise industry growth had taken a relatively predictable trajectory.  More ships resulted in more dock space downtown under the purview of the City of Ketchikan. The number of cruise-related businesses and tour offerings grew, spreading across Ketchikan as operators innovated to attract customers. There generally seemed to be room for everyone, and the city had begun to identify ways to expand berth space downtown.

Some of that would change with the Ward Cove Dock Group’s June 2019 announcement that it would be building a cruise ship dock in Ward Cove. This set in motion circumstances that, along with the pandemic, effectively put downtown dock expansion on hold while introducing a new dynamic into the Ketchikan cruise sector that’s not yet fully understood.

Meanwhile, tensions over the effects of existing and proposed visitor-business operations were bubbling up into local government meetings — most notably the 1.5-year fight over a proposed rezone that would have allowed for a particular type of tour business near Clam Cove on Gravina Island.

In early 2019, the Ketchikan Gateway Borough Assembly had begun discussing the potential need for a community tourism strategy planning process, drawing on research on the “life cycle” progression of other tourism destination communities.

A successful strategy could maintain the benefits enjoyed by the community through the cruise industry while also maintaining the community qualities that make Ketchikan an attractive destination — and reducing the potential for conflicts.

The Assembly approved proceeding with  the “community-driven” project, and invited the City Council to participate. The City Council on June 20, 2019, approved using $20,000 for the project. The borough would contribute $80,000.

“However, the project was delayed due to COVID-19 and priorities shifted to recovering from the pandemic,” according to information included in the council agenda for this past Thursday’s meeting. “As the ships will begin sailing again, the strategy is ready to be pursued. In order to do so, reauthorization of the funding from the City of Ketchikan is necessary.”

As noted above, the council voted 4-3 to support the funding and move forward with the process.

We appreciate the council members’ interest in community involvement in the process, seeing early and continuous public participation as the key in producing a “sustainable, resilient strategy that is supportable from the business community, the residents, and the municipalities,” as noted in the agenda materials. Not everyone will agree on everything, but the hope is to reach enough of a broad consensus to produce a workable strategy.

The pandemic is affecting Ketchikan in many ways, including the economically traumatic long pause in cruise ship traffic. What we do with that pause is our choice.  Working toward a smart strategy that will keep Ketchikan as a top attraction for visitors and an attractive community for residents for many years to come is a good choice.