The Norwegian Pearl cruise ship, right, pulls into the AJ Dock in Juneau in September 2018. The future of large vessel cruise ship-based tourism is a topic of debate as a group of cruise reform activists are trying to advance ballot measures aimed at limiting cruise ships in Juneau. Another community group has started a Stop the Sign campaign to prevent the questions from appearing on the ballot in October's municipal election.  (Michael Penn/Juneau Empire File)

Cruise control on the ballot?

Not so fast, says Protect Juneau’s Future committee

Cruise-reform activists expect to hit the streets next week to collect the roughly 3,000 signatures needed to put a trio of measures that would limit cruise ship travel to Juneau on local ballots. They won’t be the only ones out and urging action.

“Please don’t sign these petitions and tell your friends and neighbors not to sign,” said Laura Martinson, the owner of Caribou Crossing and co-chair of the Protect Juneau’s Future committee, during a Greater Juneau Chamber of Commerce meeting. “Changing the city’s charter is not the way to do this.”

On Thursday, leaders from Protect Juneau’s Future joined the chamber’s weekly lunch meeting to share plans to prevent the group from getting the needed signatures through a Stop the Sign campaign.

Group leaders said that they are creating posters and buttons to discourage people from signing the petitions and that volunteers with signs will be out and about to deter signing and provide information.

Leaders of Protect Juneau’s Future say that if any or all of the initiatives pass, it will devastate the economy, shutter local businesses, force a municipal budget reckoning, limit the ability of young entrepreneurs to set up shop, and raise families in Juneau and send shockwaves out to other communities that depend on cruise ship travel.

Ballot initiatives seek to curb cruise ships

Unintended consequences

During the presentation, leaders said that while each proposal may seem straightforward, each would bring “unintended consequences.”

“The 7 p.m. curfew means no afternoon arrivals, and all aboards will start around 4:30 in the afternoon. That’s devastating for downtown restaurants, bars and shops. It decimates that part of the downtown economy,” Martinson said. “Ships don’t call here for less than six hours.”

Martinson said that banning ships on Saturdays takes $20 million in direct spending out of the economy.

“I think you’ll end up with a ghost town on Saturday if cruises are banned. Those are already light nights down here. That’s the best time for locals to come down,” said Eric Forst, owner of the Red Dog Saloon and President of the Juneau Chamber of Commerce.

Martinson said that eliminating ships over 100,000 gross tons would prevent all the ships in the Princess Cruise fleet from calling in Juneau.

According to the committee, the larger vessels are cleaner and more efficient than some smaller, older ships.

“These ships have been coming for ten years. It’s not just mega-ships,” she said.

Dahl agreed, adding, “this is the one that takes the numbers down.”

“We are sustained by the volume in the summer,” Martinson said.

Community impact

Opponents of the measures say that the ballot initiatives are overly restrictive and shut down the community discussion that’s been going on for several years about the best way to manage tourism. They cite continued dialogue with the Visitor Industry Task Force, developed by Mayor Beth Weldon, as a better place to discuss the industry and its impact.

“These initiatives take away the dialogue,” Martinson said. “This is not a political discussion. This is a community discussion.”

Opponents of the measure say it’s critical to help the community understand how the cruise industry supports the community.

“We have one goal, to inform people about all the ways the city depends on the cruise industry. It adds $36 million to the city,” said Craig Dahl, executive director of the Juneau Chamber of Commerce and co-chair of Protect Juneau’s Future.

“Take a look around at our eateries, our breweries, our shops—all the things that make it fun to live here and attract young people back to town. Imagine if we need to pick up that tab through property taxes. If that goes away, there’s not much to help us make up that difference,” Dahl said.

Martinson said that tourism enhances quality of life of residents.

“As tourism grew, it allowed opportunities with that growth. Like making kelp salsa or gin. Those businesses are sustained through cruise passengers,” she said.

The ‘myth’ of the independent traveler

During the presentation, Martinson and Dahl told Chamber of Commerce members that independent travelers can’t make up the difference from lost cruise ship revenue.

“The cruise ship footprint is smaller. Passengers take infrastructure with them back to the ship,” Martinson said. “Think about an independent traveler with a rental car. They could be everywhere.”

Both agreed that the number of hotel rooms and flight capacity into town makes it impossible for independent traveler volume to replace cruise ship volume.

“We are sustained by the volume in the summer,” Martinson said.

Ballot organizers react

In a phone interview Thursday afternoon, Karla Hart, a Juneau resident and co-founder of the Global Cruise Activist Network, said she listened to the presentation and found the Stop the Sign approach “very confrontational.”

“If they knew we would not get traction, they would not be worried,” Hart said.

“We get the booklets from the clerk on Monday,” she continued. “Knowing that there’s some question of whether or not we will be able to reach out to people, we will have to consider what that means.”

Hart rejected the idea that the Visitor Industry Taskforce represents a better path for discussing the issue.

“My big reaction is that they are saying that a charter initiative is not the right forum. Many of us have been in discussions for 30 years or more, and we’ve had no success in those forums. The Visitor Industry Task Force was stacked against those opposed to the ships. The task force didn’t outline any steps,” she said.

She continued: “It’s disingenuous for them to say they want to continue the conversation unless they are offering a solution that’s durable and binding. They know the problems. They are reacting so strongly because they know people have not been heard.”

Still, Hart says she’s willing to talk with local leaders.

“We’d come to the table to talk. It’s not our intent to hurt businesses. Our intent is to protect the quality of life from the uncontrolled growth and bustle of the industry,” she said.

Hart said that many people don’t realize that while cruises are paused due to the pandemic, the industry is still making plans to expand. She cited dock expansion efforts by the Norwegian Cruise Line and the pending plans to expand the visitor center at the Mendenhall Glacier.

“We don’t have the luxury to sit back and wait it out,” Hart said.

New cruise ship dock project moves ahead

About the initiatives

There are three potential ballot questions and about 3,000 signatures must be collected for each one for it to proceed to the ballot. Here are the proposals:

— Cruise ships with a capacity of more than 250 passengers may not be at dock or anchor between 7 p.m. and 7 a.m., beginning in 2022.

— Cruise ships with a capacity of more than 250 passengers may not be at dock or anchor on Saturdays, beginning in 2022.

— No cruise ship larger than 100,000 gross tons may be at dock or anchor after January 1, 2026.

Contact reporter Dana Zigmund at dana.zigmund@juneauempire.com or 907-308-4891.

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