This rendering depicts Huna Totem Corp.’s proposed new cruise ship dock downtown that was approved for a conditional-use permit by the City and Borough of Juneau Planning Commission last July. (City and Borough of Juneau)

This rendering depicts Huna Totem Corp.’s proposed new cruise ship dock downtown that was approved for a conditional-use permit by the City and Borough of Juneau Planning Commission last July. (City and Borough of Juneau)

Opinion: Huna Totem dock project inches forward while Assembly decisions await

When I last wrote about Huna Totem Corporation’s cruise ship dock project in November, over four years had passed since the subport property on which the project was to be located was purchased by Norwegian Cruise Lines. Over 15 months had passed since Huna Totem Corporation took over the project, now named Aak’w Landing. Numerous studies, public meetings and permitting steps have transpired in the interim.

Now, as Aak’ Landing final approval inches closer to the finish line, the Assembly seems reluctant to commit its support and the naysayers have gotten more shrill.

After spending millions of dollars and years in the process, how much longer will the sponsors of the project be required to wait?

In August 2023, the CBJ Planning Commission authorized a conditional use permit for the dock project as well as approving a permit for the uplands improvements.

Shortly thereafter, Juneau resident Karla Hart appealed the Planning Commission decision citing inadequate public outreach and incomplete study and analysis. The Assembly agreed to accept the appeal and hired a hearing officer to adjudicate the case. More delay ensued when Hart objected to the appointment of the hearing officer who was eventually replaced.

Hart, a longtime anti-cruise activist, has made news before. In 2021, she filed a ballot petition that would have banned large cruise ships from coming to Juneau. The action would have resulted in, according to some estimates, a 74% decrease in cruise passengers and an annual loss of $162 million to Juneau businesses.

The petition failed to garner enough signatures to qualify for the ballot.

But Hart hasn’t given up. She recently filed another petition to ban large cruise ships from Juneau on Saturdays and the 4th of July. But, not to worry because, as her group held a rally in Marine Park in early April to “greet” the first cruise ship of the season, Hart was quoted in the Juneau Empire as saying, “We’re not against anything…”

A decision on Hart’s appeal could be forthcoming during a scheduled Assembly meeting and executive session on April 29.

The recent welcome news that the USCG will homeport an icebreaker in Juneau has complicated the process in some people’s minds. Even though the icebreaker’s arrival is years away, and faces additional planning and funding issues, it has been raised as another excuse for activists to justify delaying dock approval.

However, it appears that USCG and cruise ship activities are compatible, and that the adjacent NOAA dock provides more than enough room for the proposed icebreaker.

So, the process grinds on as officials seem hesitant to give the project the priority it deserves.

Most significantly, the city has continued to drag its feet on a decision to approve a lease of the city-owned tidelands that Huna Totem will need for the project.

The Assembly recently added another layer of bureaucracy to the process by realigning internal municipal responsibilities to allow supervision over cruise docks to the tourism director. Nevertheless, in removing the responsibility for reviewing the tidelands lease from the Docks and Harbors department, where it traditionally has resided, the Assembly now has the direct obligation to expedite the process. Any conditions the Assembly considers necessary can be included in the tidelands lease. There’s no reason to delay further deliberation and a decision on the lease.

The importance of this project cannot be overstated. The community’s aging and declining population signal problems ahead. Juneau’s cost of living is still a deterrent to would-be job hunters. Plummeting student populations have forced the Juneau School District to close schools and trim expenses.

To reverse these negative trends, our economy must grow to spread the tax burden more widely and provide more jobs for young working families.

While homeporting an icebreaker here will help, it won’t be nearly enough. Juneau needs the potential economic stimulus and tax revenues the $150 million private investment the Aak’w Landing project will bring to our community.

The irony is that the Aak’w Landing dock will actually help mitigate downtown congestion and reduce ship emissions, all with no increase in the number of large ships now visiting Juneau.

Isn’t that what the anti-cruise crusaders want?

• After retiring as the senior vice president in charge of business banking for KeyBank in Alaska, Win Gruening became a regular Opinion Page columnist for the Juneau Empire. He was born and raised in Juneau and graduated from the U.S. Air Force Academy in 1970. He is involved in various local and statewide organizations. Columns, My Turns and Letters to the Editor represent the view of the author, not the view of the Juneau Empire. Have something to say? Here’s how to submit a My Turn or letter.

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