It’s an understatement to say that much has changed since the City of Ketchikan started its port project to accommodate a growing cruise ship industry.
The First City expected 1.3 million cruise ship passengers this season. None came because of the response to the novel coronavirus pandemic.
The industry believed that number would increase to about 1.7 million by 2020. Not happening this side of the decade’s halfway mark. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has halted large cruise ship travel in the United States until Sept. 30 or until COVID-19 circumstances change. Canada, where the Port of Vancouver is located and serves as the starting point for many ships coming to Alaska, has suspended cruise ship activity through at least the end of October.
No telling when CDC and Canada might reverse their edicts.
In the meantime, attempts are underway to at least temporarily lift the Passenger Vessel Services Act. The PVSA prevents the foreign-flagged cruise ships from sailing between two U.S. ports without including at least one stop in a foreign port, at least one reason the ships start their Alaska voyages in Canada or include a Canadian port call.
Specifically, the act, which regulates maritime passenger transportation in the United States, requires that passengers transported between two U.S. ports be on ships that are U.S. built, owned and documented.
Even with a temporary reprieve from the PVSA, it would be necessary for cruise lines to mitigate the possibility of COVID-19 outbreaks onboard and in communities. Virus tests likely would become a prerequisite for passengers before and during a cruise — perhaps multiple times as passengers mingle in Alaska communities.
But, even before the virus, the port situation had changed in Ketchikan since the city had begun talking about expansion to accommodate the Post-Panamax-sized ships and upland development to handle the increasing number of passengers.
The Ward Cove Dock Group started a port project of its own, installing a dock to accommodate two ships simultaneously and acquiring an agreement with Norwegian Cruise Lines to shift its allegiance to Ward Cove. The group intends upland development, as well.
That alone is sufficient for the city to reevaluate its project. Between Ward Cove and the Port of Ketchikan, the community has six docks capable of tying up cruise ships.
Last fall the Ketchikan City Council voted to seek requests for proposals for port and upland development. It received three proposals in January. One entity that submitted a proposal dropped out, leaving two that made public presentations in August.
Ketchikan Port Solutions, which originally identified as Global Port Holdings before it formed a partnership with Anchorage-based ConRac following its RFP submission, presented its proposal Aug. 26.
Survey Point Holdings, which has been the liaison between the cruise industry and the community, and scheduled ships based on the cruise lines’ longevity with Ketchikan, made its public presentation Aug. 12.
Both proposals will undergo careful review by legal and financial experts. The city has yet to release the RFPs to the public, protecting the responders privacy, but limiting public examination.
Global Port Holdings promised about all that Ketchikan had indicated it wanted, then some. Its package totaled more than $200 million, leaving the notion it might be too good to be true. Now identifying as Ketchikan Port Solutions — adding “Ketchikan” to its name after hearing an overwhelming mantra of “local” as it lobbied the community — also piques suspicion.
Survey Point Holdings stressed its local experience and proposed taking over the city’s current bond debt of about $33 million for the port. With some of the deep roots of Survey Point’s people in the community, they concluded their presentation leaving more than a sense that it is the hometown team.
The proposals will be examined, along with study information gathered by the city. Unfortunately, that information pre-dated the pandemic. It should be updated.
Then the City Council will want to listen to the breakdown of the proposals in light of updated projections by its advisors. Much has changed in the past 20 months or so.
The main aspect that hasn’t changed is the public’s view, a view emphasized by the community group, Our Port, which collected hundreds of local signatures in support of the city maintaining control of its docks. It harkens to local control at every juncture. As the council exams its possibilities, including potentially hiring staff to manage the port — another local view — “local” is paramount.
“Local” is the one consistency as Ketchikan’s cruise ship industry has risen and now fallen. But it will arise, and likely passenger projections will be realized and exceeded. Once again, the downtown streets will be filled to overflowing.
Ketchikan has prodigiously grown the industry here. It can continue to.