HITTING THE HILLS

Eric “Whitey” Coufal starts up the Lower Lake Trail on a bitter cold day last week to train for the Fulda Challenge. See the Team USA Profile in features below. Jeff Brady

Fairweather yanked

Skagway down to two ferries a week; labor negotiations continue

Skagway News/Juneau Empire
The Alaska Department of Transportation sent the fast ferry Fairweather to Ketchikan on Jan. 23, delivering on a threat to suspend service if an agreement was not reached with all of its unions.
Last Sunday’s Fairweather was cancelled so the ship could reach Ketchikan by the Jan. 25 deadline. Skagway is back to two mainline ferries a week, as it was over the holidays when the Fairweather was down for repairs after battling 70 mph wind gusts and huge waves in Lynn Canal. This time, the service interruption is entirely manmade, and it is frustrating everyone from individual travelers to school groups.
The Inland Boatmen’s Union, representing about half of the ship’s crew, reached a tentative agreement with the state Jan. 13, but the Marine Engineers’ Beneficial Association and the Masters, Mates and Pilots unions have yet to cut a deal since an impasse was announced Jan. 3.
Meetings with those two unions did not resume until this past Monday. As of noon Wednesday, the state was in the third straight day of negotiations.
The state’s negotiator, John Torgerson, said Wednesday morning in a phone interview that some progress had been made on smaller items, “but the larger issues are still there.”
Citing the high cost of running the new ship, the state wants to cut winter service to four days a week, which would mean it would need just one crew instead of two. The Fairweather had been scheduled to serve Haines and Skagway from Juneau four days a week in winter, and was on the Juneau-Sitka run two days a week.
At this point, there are no plans to supplement service in Lynn Canal, Torgerson added.

BRIEF RETURN - The MV Fairweather unloads basketball team members for the Don Hather Tourney in Skagway earlier this month after it had been out of service for repairs to its cowling.

Problems with the Fairweather and other ferries have caused difficulties for the Skagway City School District, said Activities Director Gary Trozzo, and other districts are encoutering problems trying to get their kids to and from Skagway.
This weekend, the service interruption is especially costly. With no ferry connection on Thursday, the Skagway district was forced to spend $7,000 (the lowest bid) on flying 18 basketball players, coaches and chaperones to and from Kake for games that were scheduled months ago.
Trozzo said the Klawock School District also must fly its teams all the way to Skagway for next weekend’s series here.
“It has impacted everything we’ve tried to do so far,” Trozzo said.
New House District 5 Rep. Bill Thomas (R-Haines) spoke up for his frustrated constituents in a letter to the governor and press release last week.
“I understand the process that the state and the unions are going through, and while I cannot and do not wish to interfere with negotiations, I want to see the interests of my constituents protected,” said Rep. Thomas. “This deadlock is very disappointing. It is the public that suffers in this situation, and that’s not acceptable. Both the governor and the unions are responsible to the people, and I’d like to see them come to an agreement so the ferry can keep running.”
Thomas said his constituents “depend on the Fairweather, and the Alaska Marine Highway System, in a variety of important ways. The new vessel has already shown its potential to improve convenience, and I trust that as the AMHS continues to work out the typical bugs to be expected with a new vessel, the Fairweather will be able to provide reliable, predictable and effective transportation in northern Southeast Alaska.”
Torgerson said this week that he understands the frustration – it also is affecting Juneau – but said the state can’t continue operating at the losses it has been experiencing.
“This is costing everyone...,” Torgerson said. “The commissioner made the decision that if there’s no agreement we will not run the boat. The subsidy is too great.”
The state contends that running the ship seven days a week from October to April costs an additional $4 million a year with two crews. The high price of oil also has prompted DOT to request about $7.5 million in fast-track supplemental funds from the Alaska Legislature.
Union officials said the plan to run four days a week with one crew was sprung on them in November with no warning.
“Either their intention was to tie it up or the state’s negotiators are operating without supervision and without a plan,” said MEBA business agent Ben Goldrich. “The people who are going to lose out on this are the people who use the marine highway system, and they deserve better from the state.”
Torgerson told the Empire last week that running the ferry with a reduced crew from October through April was the state’s plan all along and that the unions should have read the budget.
“Let them file an unfair labor practice,” he said, adding that he briefed the unions in November on the plan. “Other than that I don’t have a response.”
Joe Geldhof, legal counsel for MEBA, said if the state intended to operate the reduced schedule, it shouldn’t have released a schedule last year saying it would run seven days a week.

It's out: Juneau Access SDEIS favor road, public review begins

The long-awaited Supplemental Draft Environmental Impact Statement for the Juneau Access Improvements Project is now available for public review, and a public meeting has been scheduled for Feb. 24 at the Skagway School.
As expected, the document selected a highway up east Lynn Canal from Juneau to Skagway, with a ferry connection to Haines from Katzehin, as its preferred alternative.
The Alaska Department of Transportation and Public Facilities announced Jan. 13 that the document was accepted and signed by the Federal Highway Administration (FHWA), the first step in the public review process.
One issue of concern in recent months to Skagway residents and state officials was the status of the Dewey Lakes Recreation Area, where the proposed road would cross on its path into Skagway.
According to the SDEIS, the FWHA has determined that the trails themselves are worthy of federal 4(F) protections, but not the surrounding lands which are managed for multiple use. The SDEIS states the trails can be bridged and mitigation can be allowed in consultation with the City of Skagway and National Park Service. The trails have also been recognized as being of historic value.
Copies of the SDEIS were made available to the public this week. A copy can be viewed at the library, and it also can be downloaded off the project’s website, http://juneauaccess.alaska.gov
With a DSL connection, it still takes a few hours to download the report and accompanying photo-illustrations. Appendices such as detailed avalanche and socioeconomic reports were not up on the site this week (they were added to the site later). A free CD version of the DEIS is available upon request.
The SDEIS has been delivered to Washington, D.C. to be officially posted in the Federal Register. The project’s aim is to improve a traveler’s ability to move to and from Juneau within the Lynn Canal corridor, according to a state press release. The document reflects extensive study on the part of the state that first began in 1994 as part of a federally required process for proposed transportation improvements.
“Shortly after I was elected Governor, I directed the Department of Transportation and Public Facilities to complete the work on this project, which had been suspended under the previous administration,” said Gov. Frank H. Murkowski in a statement. “I did so because improving transportation and access are among my top priorities for Alaska.”
Murkowski said that making sure Alaska communities are connected and that Alaskans have access to commerce, health care, recreational opportunities, and to each other is a primary focus of his administration.
“We have taken an important step in moving forward on this important transportation initiative,” added DOT&PF Commissioner Mike Barton in the state’s release.
“The department has worked hard to complete this phase of the project and we look forward to hearing public comments on which project alternatives best meet individual, family and community needs,” Barton said. “We are pleased to have reached this milestone.”
The Skagway News will have a detailed look at various apsects of the SDEIS in its two February issues, and coverage of the public hearing in the first paper in March. The comment period ends March 21. – JEFF BRADY

Incubator business idea runs into permit problems

P&Z upholds HDC decision against tents behind false fronts, fences

By ANDREW CREMATA
As the years separating Skagway from its centennial celebration increase, so does the cost of monthly rent up and down the boardwalks of the Skagway Historic District. It seems that for every locally owned business that has permanently hung a “closed” sign on its door, there has been a jewelry or chain store opening in its place.
Entrepreneur Dennis Corrington wants to make it easier for those trying to start a business of their own, but his idea thus far hasn’t been able to get past City Hall.
“I see everything in life as an opportunity,” said Dennis Corrington from his winter home in St. Louis. Corrington is specifically talking about his property on Seventh Ave. and Broadway across the street from his Skagway Outlet Store.
Corrington planned to build a structure for a retail food court last winter and even went so far as to get the permits to begin construction. But in the past year, his plans changed, due in part to big project developments on other properties downtown.
“The new building (on Second Ave.) is 20,000 square feet,” said Corrington. “It would not be prudent to build so soon and saturate the market.”
Corrington changed gears and started looking
into other options. “We had the idea for an incubator business.”
Continued from p. 1
Corrington’s idea is to surround the lot on Seventh Ave. with a combination of fence and false storefronts. Three of these false fronts would be entryways to an outdoor mall of tent-based businesses for those without the monetary resources for prime Broadway exposure. These upstart endeavors could “incubate” into more mature, fruitful businesses if the market responds, with the advantage to the business owner being the relatively small initial investment, he said.
The incubator business idea is not new to Alaska. He cites the Saturday Market in Anchorage, which started 13 years ago with 30 tent sites that now number in the hundreds.
Corrington has received some positive feedback from those who see opportunity where there had been little before, but the Historic District Commission sees the project in a different light.
The HDC denied Corrington’s request based on numerous problems with the plan including fences that are too tall, canvas structures behind false fronts, and perceived conflicts with businesses on the outside.
Corrington appealed the decision to the Planning and Zoning Commission at its Jan. 13 meeting. His attorney, Robert Spitzfaden, represented Corrington.
Spitzfaden made the argument that gold rush photos were used in determining the design. “There were fences, false fronts and tents,” he said. “The fences were used to screen lots that held livestock and false fronts were common.”
“The HDC is not against the idea of a local market,” said Casey McBride, a local jeweler who chairs the HDC.
McBride pointed out that during the gold rush there were no 10-foot high fences and there were no false fronts without buildings attached.
“The commission is concerned about activities conducted behind the fence....,” McBride continued. “It would allow vendors to conduct business in the historic district without having to comply to its ordinances.”
McBride and the HDC believe this would be unfair to the businesses on Broadway that have had to comply with HDC guidelines.
Corrington says he is willing to change some of the more controversial aspects of the design, such as scaling back the fence size and using other materials. Spitzfaden believes the HDC is overstepping its mandate when it questions anything beyond the fence perimeter.
On one side of this fence is Corrington who believes the commission should encourage new business. “This is an opportunity to offer (new businesses) a chance,” said Spitzfaden, who accused the HDC of disliking incubator businesses.
On the other side is the HDC, which believes it is protecting other historic district businesses by enforcing their authority to include “what may or may not occur behind the fence.”
The P&Z agreed with the HDC..
Board member Craig Jennison described the plan as “one big fence,” and Lisa Cassidy added, “I think it’s a great idea, but it doesn’t seem like anything is allowed.”
“I love the concept,” said Debbie Steidel, acting P&Z chair. “I’d love to see another Moe’s Mall.”
While the commission’s reaction was positive when it came to the fundamental idea, they upheld the HDC’s decision to deny the proposal unanimously.
What’s next?
Corrington will personally appeal to City Council and remains optimistic.
“I think I’ll be able to give some clarity,” he said.
Corrington brings up the now defunct “Moe’s Mall” and believes his idea offers hope to some businesses that followed the rules over the years, only to be left out in the wind when the property where their buildings stood was sold.
“It was sad,” said Corrington.
He cited examples like The Popcorn Wagon and Dejon Delights, which had to move twice since being vacated from the Fifth and Broadway property to make room for a new retail building. “The HDC didn’t cut them much slack,” he said.
Corrington believes that Skagway is headed for trouble if upstart businesses cannot get a foothold on Broadway. He says his idea will cost businesses 30 to 40 dollars a day in rent and give them a chance to test their products.
“There will be 27 jewelry stores in 2005.... there could be 40 of them by 2007,” he added. “Once you have 40 jewelry stores it will change the experience. We need variety.”

PHOTO OF THE WEEK

Skagway Spelling Bee winner Brandy Mayo, flanked by finalists Krikit Bounds and Rori Leaverton, writes down a word before sounding it for the judges. Mayo, a sixth grader, won the local Bee for the second straight year, outlasting the two other finalists. Mayo will compete with spellers from around the state Feb. 4-5 in Anchorage. Jeff Brady

OTHER FEATURES THIS ISSUE:

• FULDA FANATICS: Skagway-based team overcomes injuries to train for adventure event

• SPORTS ROUNDUP: Lady Panthers sweep Hoonah; Braves too strong for SHS boys

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