Sitka Dock To Get First Regular Visits In 2013

A businessman who spent millions of his company’s money to build a cruise dock outside of Sitka two years ago will finally get his first regular customers. The Seven Seas Navigator and the Regatta have both announced plans to dock at Halibut Point Marine in 2013. For Chris McGraw, it means his wait for business is finally over, but the work of moving thousands of people is just beginning.

The Old Sitka Dock is about five miles north of downtown Sitka, in a relatively industrial area of town. To get there, I drive out Halibut Point Road and turn left into a boat yard, avoiding the neighboring lot full of shipping containers and security warnings.

I get out of my car near a giant travel lift that hauls boats out of the water for maintenance and repair. Chris McGraw, manager of Halibut Point Marine, which owns the dock, is standing nearby.

“Yeah, dimensions are 470 feet long, 55 feet wide, and the overall draw is about 10 feet of water, and we have 8 feet sticking up, so it’s 18 feet (tall),” he says.

Giant black fenders have been pulled out of the water and sit near bollards where the ships will tie up. This floating concrete structure used to be part of Highway 520 in Washington State, and carried commuters across Lake Washington between Bellevue and Seattle. Soon it will carry tourists. The Seven Seas Navigator and the Regatta, both cruise ships already on Sitka’s 2013 schedule, will use the dock instead of anchoring near downtown for the duration of the season.

“The ships hold somewhere between 500 and 600 passengers,” McGraw said. “So it will range from anywhere between 12,000 and 14,000. They have 23 visits.”

Supporters of using a dock say more passengers spend time in town when they can walk off the ship, rather than having to take a smaller boat to shore. And they hope that translates into more business for downtown retailers, and more sales tax revenue to the city.

But there are also costs. Passengers will be bussed into town, and the city plans to pay $3 per head to the company that can provide the transportation. McGraw’s firm plans to bid on the bus contract. The money will come from a per-passenger tax the state charges to cruise vessels.

The cost to the city goes beyond cruise ship head tax money. The two ships together would have paid Sitka more than $16,000 to anchor and ferry passengers to shore at O’Connell Bridge and Crescent Harbor.

Now that they’re using the dock, they’ll be paying their fees to Halibut Point Marine, and it will probably be more than what they would have given the city. McGraw said the cruise ships will pay $3 a passenger to dock at Old Sitka. That means up to $39,000 for Halibut Point Marine, if every ship is fully loaded.

That means Halibut Point Marine will finally start to see income from the dock, which was built without any commitments from cruise companies.

“We had thought that, you know, we build the dock and why wouldn’t they tie up?” McGraw said. “You don’t see them in Juneau anchoring up when there’s empty dock space.”

But he says as a locally owned business, trying to get the attention of international cruise lines proved difficult.

“You know their names and you have their phone numbers and their e-mail addresses, but you can never get a hold of them, and they never return your phone calls or your e-mails,” McGraw said. “Unless they want to talk to you, you don’t get much face time. Keep trying. Persistence.”

That persistence is starting to pay off, he says, with the help of some evidence. At the end of the 2012 season, the Celebrity Century cruise ship tied up at the Old Sitka dock. McGraw says that single visit showed other cruise lines the dock was viable.

In addition to the two ships planning to use Old Sitka in 2013, a Disney vessel has signed on for one visit in 2014. It will be the cruise line’s first visit to Sitka. Disney won’t ferry its passengers to shore, so without a dock, their ships wouldn’t visit at all.

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Ed Ronco is a reporter at KCAW in Sitka.

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