Another silly bet on our future?
One of the reasons I settled in Skagway and decided to start a newspaper here in 1978 was the fact that the Klondike Highway was going to open that year. My line of thinking was that the highway was going to bring a lot more commerce to the town, and Skagway deserved a regularly published newspaper, something it had not enjoyed for any length of time since the 1920s.
The townspeople embraced the new highway – there were very few in town against it. Skagway had pushed for a highway north for decades and finally got its wish, although there was a certain nervousness about the road and its possible effects on the then-financially troubled White Pass & Yukon Route Railroad.
I arrived back in Skagway after finishing up college that May and got to work. The highway construction was still going on and there were close to 1,000 people in town. The school, with over 200 students, was bursting at the seams. The place was “booming” with construction workers and five or six cruise ships a week. Nearly 200 were on the WP&YR payroll, summer and winter. I embarked on a weekly newspaper, and things started off well.
One summer night, during a poker game, I made a bold prediction: “Skagway will have 2,000 people here by the next decade!” Everyone at the table – most of them former “summer people” like me who had become year-round residents – took me up on the bet. Yeah, a few beers had been downed, and I bet them all $100 each. By the time 1980 rolled around, I had hoped all had forgotten, but they all came around to collect their $100.
By then, the paper was fledgling, just like the town - in fact, I had merged with the Haines paper to survive as a weekly. The highway was open in the summer, and was an enjoyable outlet. It did bring waves of Canadians on holiday weekends and a smattering of RVs, but its biggest use was by summer tourists on buses. They would come in on the old M/V Fairweather day boat from Juneau, stay overnight at the Klondike (Westmark) and continue on to Whitehorse. Those tourists dropped some bucks every night at the ‘98 Show, where I acted to have some extra cash. In the winter, I worked on a tug so I could eat. The paper wasn’t making money. There were few winter advertisers and hardly any winter visitors.
Things, of course, got worse when the railroad shut down. For a number of reasons, I brought the paper back to Skagway, settling on a twice monthly schedule. After the railroad shutdown and layoffs in the fall of 1982, I had to cut back to monthly in the winter. In 1985-86, the community was divided over whether to petition the governments of Yukon and Alaska to open the Klondike Highway year-round. The Faro mine was ready to reopen, but the new owner wanted to truck the ore here. Mayor Bill Feero broke a tie vote on the City Council. It was a bold and necessary move on his part, and the town has enjoyed year-round access to the Yukon ever since. We switched from printing the paper in Juneau to printing it every other week in Whitehorse. More cruise ships came, the railroad started up again, more historic buildings in town were restored, and I started a book store and newsstand in one leased by the National Park Service. Private investment in downtown restorations followed as well. Summer business was good, however the wintertime economy remained stagnant. Skagway’s infrastructure, built from a solid summer economy, continued to improve. But even with 25 cruise ships a week today, we keep losing families and struggle to keep more than 100 students in the school.
At no time during this restructuring of the Skagway economy, was there much support for a Juneau Road. When an old Juneauite, on his own, came before the Skagway Chamber of Commerce in the 1980s pleading for a road, he was politely received, and shown the door. It wasn’t until the early 1990s, when Wally Hickel was back in the governor’s chair that the topic came up again. The capital movers had yet again made Juneau nervous, and there was some political support behind the road idea to shut them up. Hickel ordered a study, and through many modifications, including shelving by the Knowles Administration, it has come back with the full political force of Gov. Frank Murkowski under the name “Juneau Access.”
And what a rosy economic picture we have with this preferred alternative, a road from Juneau to Skagway. The Juneau Access SDEIS used traffic projections to come up with these appealing numbers for Skagway if the highway opens by the end of this decade: 70,000 new visitors, $1.5 million in new payroll, a population increase of 90, and 13 more school students.
Now, if I were still a betting man, I would welcome the chance to lay $100 against those odds and get some of my money back from 28 years ago.
The state is asking us to bet that our economy will improve when it is the Juneau and Whitehorse economies that will surely see the most benefits from a road between the two capitals. We will certainly be able to travel cheaper and more often with this new road, but we are being asked to gamble that the additional dollars coming into our community as a stop on this new road, will be more than the dollars going out, or passing us by. And no one knows for sure how those cards will play out.
There are many good reasons for supporting and opposing the road. The supporters have cited the ease and lower cost of travel, better access to health care and shopping opportunities. The opposition has cited avalanche and public safety concerns, damage to the environment, and serious impacts on the Dewey Lakes Recreation Area and the north end of town. But it is the road’s uncertain effect on the community’s port and small business economy that concerns us the most.
A safer bet for our community’s overall economic health is a better, service-oriented ferry system under alternative 4A (demand-driven combination of fast and mainline ferries) that will operate often enough to win back customers and achieve the goal of improving Juneau Access. – WJB