Ponant’s ship Le Soléal anchored outside Petersburg harbor in August of 2019 (Joe Viechnicki/KFSK)

A draft plan for the visitor industry in Petersburg recommends some public projects and additional planning for an expanded presence by summertime visitors. Candidates for borough assembly are hoping to address those recommendations before next year’s season.

The Petersburg Economic Development Council’s plan came from a working group of business owners and other community members, borough staff and elected officials who started meeting in January of 2019. It’s called the Visitor Industry Management Plan and it makes recommendations for balancing Petersburg’s quality of life with what could be a growing tourism industry.

It’s the result of a community discussion that started in 2018 when one company, Viking Cruises expressed interest in bringing ships to town. They had capacity for around 900 passengers, larger than the ships that normally call here. Petersburg’s Chamber of Commerce hosted a forum that fall with residents speaking both for and against an increase in the footprint for tourism.

The plan has recommendations for maintaining Petersburg’s quality of life, improving communications with the public, maximizing benefits of the industry, improving infrastructure and planning along with addressing environmental impacts from the ships.

Candidates for Petersburg borough assembly answered a question about the plan during an online forum this month.

Marc Martinsen touted his experience working for a cruise company.

“The company I used to work for, Uncruise they decided not to come to Petersburg six months before all this nonsense started,” Martinsen said, referring to the health pandemic. “And I don’t know why. I was hoping to run into one of the guys and say why aren’t you coming here? For whatever reasons they decided a long time ago they weren’t going to stop in Petersburg. I actually talked them into making more stops 3 or 4 years ago, because see it’s a great town. We had 70-80 passengers depending on what boat you were on. But they have a lot of ships and they have a lot running around up in the Juneau area.”

That company based cruises out of Petersburg in 2018 and 19 on its ship the Safari Quest. It was that boat and others that have sparked anger over waste water discharges in the area.

Another candidate, assembly incumbent Brandi Thynes wanted to see the borough address impacts from that industry.

“I think that there is a good future for tourism in this community,” Thynes said. “I do agree that there needs to be checks and balances especially with our water quality and the big cruise ships, fortunately we don’t get them through here but they still pollute our waters as well as having some forethought on how to deal with things that were not disrupting other industries, like the fishing industry, like usage of the drive down or other facilities that they need access to.”

This conflict over use of the drive down float was a common topic for the candidates. Another assembly incumbent Jeff Meucci said the visitor industry would be one of his priorities this fall and winter.

“We need to sort it out now as opposed to come next March or April when they’re banging on the door wanting to come to Petersburg and see what a great place we live at and the commercial fishermen are trying to load gear on the drive down dock,” Meucci said. “I mean we need to work on it now. And I think we’ve got some basic framework with the visitor industry working group and economic development. I mean if we meld those two things together I think we’ll make it happen. And we do need the industry in town. I’m not saying let’s not welcome them to town but let’s make sure we welcome them under our rules and not their rules.”

Meucci suggested water quality monitoring in the boat harbors in response to waste water discharges.

And candidate Dave Kensinger agreed the assembly should address the plan’s recommendations before the spring.

“I think it’s got a bright future and I think the plan is dealing with a lot of the issues that a lot of people had in town, like Jeff mentioned, water quality, drive down dock all those are something that the assembly needs to weigh in on,” kensinger said. “And I think anything, any industry that came to this town is going to have negative impacts and also positive impacts. We just have to make for sure that the positive impacts outweigh the negatives.”

The draft plan recommends keeping track of annual passenger numbers or port calls by cruise ships to monitor the change in the industry from one year to the next. The community could set triggers for more discussions about whether more growth is desired.

Visitor numbers have been trending upward in the last decade. Last year’s cruise passengers were estimated at around 10,000. The busiest day came in mid-August; four cruise ships docked that day with around 450 guests along with a state ferry in town that day. The largest ships that have been docking here have couple hundred passengers at most, before the health pandemic hit.

Petersburg’s assembly voted to charge a passenger fee starting in 2018. Last year it raised $50,300 for the borough. It won’t add to that amount with the COVID canceled 2020 season. The draft plan recommends several projects as priorities for that money – more public restrooms, improving wayfinding, a marine pumpout station for boat waste water, more interpretive signs and an improved visitor walking map.

It also calls for possible infrastructure improvements that could allow larger ships to dock here or make it easier for boats to anchor out and bring in passengers by small boat. It recommends suggesting ways for the industry to support the museum and community foundation and ways to cut down on walking traffic downtown.

Other ideas are looking at impacts to local trails, starting up a suggestion phone line operated by the visitor center and regular posting of the scheduled cruise dockings so residents and businesses are aware of the number of ships in town. There are suggestions for improving visitor experience in town and educating the local populace about the importance of tourism dollars. Tour and charter operators reported more than three and a half million in sales in Petersburg in 2018, with another 1.6 million reported by local hotels and Bed and Breakfast lodging. Other dollars are spent in support of those businesses.