Petersburg’s borough assembly Monday decided to hold off on a larger discussion of an expanded visitor industry presence in the community but still ended up talking about the possibility. Assembly members hope to see a future forum on whether Petersburg wants, or could handle, some bigger, small cruise ships.
Assembly members voted to remove the item from the agenda at the beginning of the meeting. Nancy Strand and Kurt Wohlhueter supported that change.
“I think we just need to delay this,” Strand said. “We have a lot of things to discuss and it’s completely unnecessary to discuss it at this time.”
“And the reason why I seconded it is because I think this needs to be a community discussion before it goes on record,” Wohlhueter said.
“OK, I wanted it on the agenda today so it would be made aware to the public of the potential of a 900 passenger ship coming to Petersburg in potentially 2020,” mayor Mark Jensen responded. “I think it’s a community discussion that needs to take place.”
Jensen initially asked for the topic to be on the agenda but voted with the rest of the assembly to remove it.
A representative with Viking Cruises visited Petersburg this summer to meet with local officials about the possibility of stopping here. That company has ships with capacity for over 900 passengers, although only about two-thirds of that number is expected to lighter in from an anchored ship in Frederick Sound. It would be a larger presence for the industry in town. Ships of 100-200 passengers or smaller are the typical visitors because of the lack of a deep water port here.
While the topic was removed from the agenda, community members and the assembly did comment on the possibility.
David Whitethorn wanted the assembly to make the community aware of it. “Our community doesn’t have the facility to handle 600 of these people on our streets,” Whitethorn said. “We have no bathrooms. You put that many people on our streets it puts the burden on your businesses downtown and I’ve seen it with just two small tour boats.” Whitethorn also said there weren’t enough restaurants to feed that many people.
Brian Lynch of the Petersburg Economic Development Council read from a memo the PEDC sent to the borough about the issue. “If we want to promote economic development then the message from Petersburg cannot waiver,” Lynch read. “We are open for business and we welcome discussion, site visits, information requests and a chance to show what our community has to offer to any and all businesses.” He also thought it was important to have a public discussion about the topic but thought it was premature to be making decisions.
Petersburg Chamber of Commerce director Mara Lutomski said the chamber and Viking Travel would be happy to host a community discussion.
Assembly member Jeff Meucci cited a recent presentation he heard from the cruise industry at the annual meeting of Southeast Conference in Ketchikan. The industry is bringing larger ships to Southeast and more passengers in the next few summers.
“They are coming,” Meucci said. “And we can say it might not be the best thing but they’re coming and we better be ready for ‘em. We better have the stuff. We don’t wanna turn it into a t-shirt shop or a trinket shop but there are all kinds of opportunities out there in the visitor industry that we haven’t dealt with yet.”
Mayor Jensen suggested the community could eventually vote on the topic. He also cited recent meetings he’s attended with Southeast Conference and the Alaska Municipal League.
“If you listen to the discussion by borough managers around the state, it’s taxing their infrastructure,” Jensen said. “So with the growth of it, they’ve got to, like you say adjust, but I would like to have the public involved in it to see and try to get an idea of what the net gain is. I mean if you have to build infrastructure for them, who’s going to pay for it? Who’s going to maintain it and all those potential expenses that come along with potential expansion? So, I agree we need to have the discussion and we’ll see what the clerk comes up with for a schedule.”
The assembly didn’t schedule any work session yet but talked about possible dates in early November.