Norwegian Cruise Line starts planning new Juneau dock as community weighs tourism questions

Representatives from several Juneau neighborhood associations discuss environmental impacts from tourism during a meeting on Dec. 11, 2019. (Photo by Adelyn Baxter/KTOO)

The discussion about cruise ship tourism growth continues in Juneau.

As an executive from Norwegian Cruise Line made the rounds last week to talk about plans for a new private dock downtown, neighborhood associations came together for the first time to share their own thoughts on the industry.

On Wednesday, more than 50 people from all over Juneau met to talk about tourism impacts in their neighborhoods.

People wanted to talk about the pros and the cons. But, as usually happens, they focused mostly on the cons — things like traffic and pollution.

Jim Powell is a professor studying tourism impacts at the University of Alaska Southeast. He invited each of Juneau’s 24 neighborhood associations to the meeting.

“If you hear one comment from one person, you know, you listen to it. But if you hear a comment from all of the neighborhood associations, and you notice that we had the majority of the neighborhood associations here tonight, and they’re saying the same thing, I think that gives weight,” Powell said.

Larri Spengler lives in Thane near the southern end of Gastineau Channel. The only way in and out of the neighborhood is through downtown Juneau. In the summer, it’s packed with tourists and buses.

While that can be inconvenient, the congestion becomes a major concern when it comes to ambulance and fire response to Thane.

“The representatives from Thane tonight were representing their own views, plus we did an email survey of Thane,” Spengler said. “So we knew what some people were concerned about, and we wanted that to be added into the mix.”

Brian Flory also attended the meeting. He doesn’t mince words when talking about the cruise ship industry.

“It’s living with a bunch of bullies,” Flory said.

He lives on the west side of the Mendenhall Valley, several miles from the cruise ship docks. But he said he still feels the impacts from more than a million visitors landing in Juneau each year.

Flory recently retired from the Alaska Marine Highway System and said he and his wife are deciding whether they want to stay in Juneau at this point.

“If it continues the way it is, with unrestricted growth and a lot of problems — like helicopter noise, overcrowding, not much of a jobs future with only, basically, seasonal jobs from tourism — then, you know, I think people like me are going to leave, and that’s a shame,” he said.

But if the city can figure out a way to limit the growth, he said they may decide to stay.

That limitation — whether it’s a cap on the number of ships or the passengers they bring — is one of several questions a city task force is examining.

That task force formed this fall after Norwegian Cruise Line made the winning offer on a downtown waterfront lot and announced its intention to build another cruise ship dock.

Everything community members shared on Wednesday will be forwarded to the task force.

Powell said when Norwegian bought that property, it left a lot of Juneau residents concerned about the future.

“It was a tipping point in our community,” he said. “I think there was a lot of fear of ‘what’s going to happen now?’ as far as capacity.”

According to Norwegian, the answer is: not much.

Executive Vice President Howard Sherman spoke to a sold-out Greater Juneau Chamber of Commerce luncheon Thursday. He said the company has no intention of bringing more ships — and more passengers — to Juneau.

“We’re not planning to build anything bigger than a spot for one cruise ship,” Sherman said Thursday.

This was his second visit to town since Norwegian won the bid.

He spent the week meeting with city leaders and the planning department. He also talked to the company’s new neighbors, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration and the Coast Guard, and met with MRV Architects, the local firm Norwegian is working with to design whatever they decide to build there.

Through these early conversations, Sherman said it’s clear that the ultimate design should involve something the community can use year-round. He said he spoke with the Alaska Ocean Center, which has long hoped to build a marine science center on the lot, and is considering a variety of other ideas.

“When you have a cruise ship that that’s a day visitor, you really mostly need the pier. So it really leaves us free to use the site for whatever it is the community wants,” Sherman said.

The company doesn’t own the property yet. Sherman said Norwegian has made one $5 million payment so far and has another due next week.

The deadline to close is not until September, although they plan to finish before that. In the meantime, he’ll continue to regularly visit Juneau.

“If there’s a clear path, I don’t see it yet,” he said. “And that really has a lot to do with engagement with the community, I think.”

The city’s tourism task force will hold public testimony at City Hall on Jan. 11 and Jan. 16 to hear from the community.

Testimony will be limited to three minutes each, and written comments are encouraged.

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