POLISHING THE PEARL

Visitors watch a crew member touch up the swirl in one of the designer pearls that dot the newest Norwegian Cruise Line ship calling on Skagway this year, the Norwegian Pearl. Jeff Brady

Empress of the North passengers ferried to safety after ship hits rock

Vessel had left Skagway for Glacier Bay

By CASEY DEAN

JUNEAU – When passengers displaced from the listing Majestic America Line cruise ship Empress of the North left the ferry the Columbia, they were welcomed ashore by various officials, press corps and the next load of passengers to board the Columbia for Haines and Skagway.
All of the Empress passengers had visited Skagway the day before their ship hit a rock, ending their cruise.
The Empress of the North, manned by a new crew, struck Rocky Island at the entrance to Icy Strait early Monday morning, May 14. The ship’s crew miscalculated the turn out of Lynn Canal to Swenson Harbor en route to Bartlett Cove from Skagway, according to a preliminary report from the National Transportation Safety Board.
After drifting for two miles, the Empress reached Hanus Reef, where she was initially thought to have run aground. The captain alerted the Coast Guard and sent out a distress call, to which the ferry Columbia responded.
Over the next five hours, passengers off the cruise ship were transferred from the ship and “good Samaritan” fishing boats to the ferry, which transported them to the Auke Bay terminal. The Columbia arrived at the dock at about 11:30 a.m., shortly behind the Empress, which was able to limp there under its own power.
Travelers waiting to board the Columbia for Haines and Skagway looked on as the 206 passengers made their way down the gangway.
Most passengers coming off the ferry who spoke about the experience said the crew was helpful throughout the incident.
“The crew was great,” one man said as he walked to a bus.
The travelers were swiftly directed to busses, which transported them to Centennial Hall in Juneau. There, they were fed, interviewed by authorities, and asked to attend a press conference.
Majestic America provided free transportation home, gave a full refund for the cruise and offered passengers the opportunity to take a free cruise, said Ann Marie Ricard, spokesperson for Majestic America.

Empress passengers are escorted off the ferry Columbia by Coast Guard and Alaska soldiers in Juneau, and the damaged ship arrives under its own power at the Auke Bay ferry terminal. Casey Dean

“The passengers have been provided a full reimbursement of any travel-related expenses,” she added.
The Empress of the North, which has run aground twice previously, spent the week in Juneau under on-scene investigation by the National Transportation and Safety Board. The NTSB is analyzing the ship’s voyage data recording system and assessing damage.
NTSB spokesman Keith Holloway said the investigation team is also looking into the experience of the crew, which was on its second voyage with the ship.
“We are looking at their history and training with this company as well as any other companies,” he said. Crewmembers have also been tested for drug and alcohol use.
Repairs to the holes in the starboard outer hull and any action concerning the crew and future of the ship will be decided by Majestic America upon receiving the NTSB’s documentation sometime this week.
NTSB will not make any findings public for approximately nine months, Holloway said. During that time, NTSB will review the information collected in the first week to attempt to determine the cause of the accident.
The Empress of the North left Auke Bay Saturday, May 19, escorted by the Skagway-based tug boat, Ethan B., captained by Zack Ellis. The ship arrived in Ketchikan Tuesday morning.
Permanent repairs will be made to the cruise ship in Ketchikan; a timeline for resuming the ship’s route will be determined there, said Ricard.

Borough election approved by DOJ

The Department of Justice on May 21 issued a letter of no objection to the state to allow the special Skagway Borough election to proceed.
“We have finally crossed the final hurdle,” said Mayor Tim Bourcy. “There’s no stopping us now – we will be a borough.”
Absentee ballots for the election arrived in last Friday’s mail, and voting began Monday at City Hall. Voting will continue until 5 p.m. on June 5, when all ballots must be turned in or postmarked.
There had been concerns that the federal government might hold up the election based on a preclearance letter from the state Dept. of Commerce, Community and Economic Development, which cited a Skagway Borough’s possible effect on school district funds for Alaska Natives in Klukwan. The possible racial implications were raised in a minority opinion by the two dissenting members of the Local Boundary Commission.
The tone of the preclearance letter received harsh criticism from city officials, legislators and village leaders from Klukwan, which is located in the Haines Borough. But the letter was defended by DCCED Commissioner Emil Notti and LBC Chair Darrol Hargraves, who said the state had to mention any possibility of discrimination. The state officials also noted that the LBC majority, including Hargraves, ruled that the proposed Skagway Borough satisfied the federal Voting Rights Act.
In addition to voting to dissolve the city and establish a first class borough, the Skagway electorate will decide a full slate of public officials. – JEFF BRADY

Borough Forum: Candidates speak out

PART ONE: Voting explained, assembly candidates debate local issues

By CASEY DEAN
The Skagway Borough Election Forum, hosted in the AB Hall Tuesday, May 15, provided residents and candidates with a final opportunity to discuss issues revolving around the borough, assembly, mayoral and school board elections. The event was co-hosted by The News and KHNS and attended by approximately 50 community members who listened to the mayoral and borough assembly candidates’ responses to media and audience questions.
Former mayor Stan Selmer first addressed the history of the incorporation of the borough, which he said started with statehood.
“It took 48 years to get to this point.” he said of the borough formation vote.
City Clerk Marj Harris explained the process of voting on the incorporation of the borough and candidates. Ballots with instructions were mailed the week of Monday, May 14, to all residents who had registered as of February 7. Votes can be cast until June 5, the final day to postmark ballots.
Harris said there is a target date of June 28 for certifying election results, and that the elected officials should take office on the first Monday thereafter. Assembly and school board members will draw straws to determine term lengths; the duration of the terms will be four months, one year and four months, or two years and four months. The new borough mayor will serve a three-year term, shortened to two years and four months, she said.
The first race addressed at the forum was the Skagway City School Board. Five candidates are running for five seats. One candidate, Joanne Korsmo, of the uncontested race was present. Korsmo said she has enjoyed working with Skagway, Superintendent Michael Dickens and the rest of the board.
“I’m not that happy with them right now,” she said, joking about their absence at the forum.
Next, the borough assembly members briefly introduced themselves.
Incumbent councilmember L.C. Cassidy said she has enjoyed her year-and-a-half on the city council and wants to help the town continue to go in a positive direction, and former councilmember Ed Fairbanks echoed her statement that Skagway is at a crossroads. Dennis Corrington said he would bring something different to the table.
“I’m not a politician,” he said. “I’m a businessman.”
Former councilmember Mavis Irene Henricksen said she wants to see a future for Skagway; Mark Schaefer said he cares a lot about the community, is interested in local politics and wants to be involved.
Former councilmember Colette Hisman said, “I promise to give you my time, my energy and I will serve you and listen to you.”
Incumbent Dave Hunz said he wants to see the city grow into the future through economic development of the port, and incumbent Councilmember Mike Korsmo said Skagway has seen big improvements in the past six years.
“I hope to develop our next set of goals and do so with vision,” he said.
Incumbent Councilmember Dan Henry said he has been involved in Skagway volunteerism and politics since arriving in town 19 years ago.
“I believe that in small communities, positive energy is a good thing,” he said.
The assembly candidates then addressed questions posed by the media from moderator and News editor Jeff Brady and the audience. The first question was with regards to the mid-year handling of the police and other departmental payscale increases earlier this year.
Henry, Cassidy and Corrington expressed support for the handling of the request.
“The mayor’s stance was appropriate,” Henry said, adding that the community should take advantage of its ability to handle such issues, even when they are not convenient. Cassidy added the topic needed to be addressed.
Fairbanks, Henricksen and Hisman were not pleased with the management of the increase. Fairbanks said the police department violated the trust of the community by bringing the request before the council after the budget had been approved. Henricksen said an increase in pay should have been provided retroactively following an independent survey. Hisman said the decision to go out of budget was fiscally irresponsible.
Schaefer noted that members of the police department deserve fair wages, and Korsmo said if the council could have waited, it would have.
Candidates were then queried about their satisfaction with the draft budget with a nearly million-dollar increase, as well as the possibility of raising the sales tax to five percent.
“This is exorbitant for a town this small,” Fairbanks said of the budget. He said real estate tax increases over the past five years have resulted in the loss of businesses and senior citizens. Along this thread, Corrington suggested the appraisal system be adjusted for the city.
Several candidates pointed out that the increase is due largely to the payscale changes. Korsmo said the calculated increase in wages anticipates the highest amount, which may not be the total in the final budget.
Corrington, Cassidy and Hisman also noted the draft stage of the budget. Cassidy and Corrington said they want to determine how revenue sharing money from the legislature and the cruise head tax affect the budget before implementing a five percent sales tax. Hunz said the community must determine how it wants to spend the cruise head tax.
“This is the time to deal with it. This is when we cut the fat out of the budget,” Hisman said of the draft.
Dan Henry countered Hisman’s comment, saying there is no fat in the budget at this time.
“There are things we need to do,” he said. He suggested a sales tax holiday in winter, should the five-percent tax be put into practice.
Henricksen said the new Skagway clinic should be paid for in 30 years rather than three to reduce the strain on the budget; she said taxes should not be raised this year.

From left, assembly candidates Dan Henry, Mike Korsmo, Mark Schaefer, Dave Hunz, Colette Hisman, Mavis Henricksen, Ed Fairbanks, Dennis Corrington and L.C. Cassidy listene to a question. Casey Dean

Brady then asked about the city subsidy received by Skagway Development Corporation.
Corrington, Fairbanks and Henricksen each commented on problems with the SDC.
Corrington suggested the SDC be dissolved with the Chamber of Commerce and Convention and Visitors Bureau to form a new grant-writing organization funded by the $85,000 SDC subsidy. Fairbanks said the SDC has not brought any money to the community since its inception.
Several of the candidates noted the limited knowledge about the SDC.
“I haven’t seen any results,” Hisman said, adding that the organization needs to be more visible to the public and to receive support from the city. Henricksen said she has not been able to find out about the SDC and its operations, and Schaefer said the SDS needs to be more transparent so that community members do know what has been accomplished.
Hunz said, “You might not see it, but they’ve gone out and gotten grants.”
Cassidy said she sees the organization as an arm to the city that does those things the councilmembers do not have time to accomplish, adding the information about those projects are not known to the public.
Korsmo said SDC is an organization the community needs, whether changes are made to it or not, and Henry said the SDC has done well.
The final question asked of the nine candidates was if the Planning and Zoning Commission is responding to residents’ desires with the forthcoming Taiya Point land sale.
Opinions on potential prices for the lots in the area ranged among the candidates. Korsmo said he hopes the property values will be low enough, but Henry said the lots will more than likely be expensive.
“Five-acre lots are going to be incredibly expensive,” Fairbanks said.
Corrington said the sale is a great start to low-cost housing, but said land credit should also be given to retain landowners. Henricksen, however, said the sale will not accomplish the goal of low-cost housing.
Hunz said P&Z has all summer to look into a light industrial and commercial zoning designation for the Dyea subdivision, and Hisman said P&Z has been listening, and has to be if land is going to be made available to the public sector.
Cassidy said it is important to note efforts “be not only friendly to everyone here, but also to the place we’re trying to develop.”
Audience member Cory Thole then asked how each candidate saw him or herself as best suited to make the transition to borough status and demonstrate to the state the success of the incorporation.
Korsmo said Skagway is a test case for many Alaskan communities, but the transformation should be relatively easy. Most of the candidates agreed with this sentiment.
“Everything is already in place,” Fairbanks said.
Schaefer said he couldn’t think of a reason not to make the transition, but that he knew little about the lengthy process.
Corrington cited the establishment of the borough as a defensive move regarding city revenue, as did Henricksen, but Hisman discounted the idea, saying it was an act of self-determinism.
Audience member Jan Wrentmore asked how each of the candidates felt about teleconferencing for borough assembly meetings in light of Corrington’s advocacy for its use, as he is away from Skagway four months out of the year. Korsmo pointed out that teleconferencing by councilmembers is currently against city code, adding he didn’t think it would work, as it hadn’t in the past.
Henry, Hisman, Hunz and Schaefer were all opposed to the idea, and Cassidy, Fairbanks, Henricksen and Corrington each said limited use of teleconferencing could be a positive change to meeting procedures.
The final question for the assembly candidates came from Bert Bounds. He asked if the candidates supported the construction of another $700,000 restroom on the harbor. He later told The News the council had recently discussed building another restroom near Pullen Park. Henry, Cassidy, Hunz and Korsmo answered this question to the affirmative, while Corrington, Fairbanks, Henricksen, Hisman and Schaefer said they did not.
City Manager Alan Sorum said council had only decided to make sure utilities are in place during phases two and three of the seawall project, should the decision to construct a restroom arise at a later date.
“There is going to be no bathroom for that part of the project for the seawall in the immediate future,” he said.

PART TWO: Mayoral prospects talk community, port development

By CASEY DEAN
Mayor Tim Bourcy and City Councilmember Tom Cochran sat side-by-side in a new context at the recent Borough Election Forum. They have served together on the city council, but at the forum they sat at the same table as competing mayoral candidates.
Five questions were posed by local media, followed by questions from the audience.
The mayoral candidates opened discussion with a response to moderator and News editor Jeff Brady’s question about recent dialogues about the vitality of the community.
Bourcy said Skagway is a unique place that is vibrant and healthy with the third largest economy in the state.
“I don’t understand how anyone could suggest that it’s a dying community,” he said.
Though Cochran agreed with Bourcy’s statement that Skagway is a great place to live and raise children, he said that the school is in trouble, adding this is the first indication of a community on the decline. He offered this as an explanation of a resident’s description of Skagway as dying in a recent city council meeting. Cochran added that the seasonal fluctuation of the economy is risky.
“I would rather have 200 kids in the school and other jobs – quality jobs – year-round,” he said.
The two then discussed the privilege of the mayor to veto decisions made by the borough assembly, as in the instance of the payscale raise for the Skagway Police Department.
Cochran pointed out that a mayoral veto may actually serve little purpose in this assembly, as the two-thirds vote needed to override it would have been necessary to make any decision in the first place. He said he sees it only as an opportunity to bring a topic back to the table for further discussion by which the mayor may convince other councilmembers of his position.
Bourcy, who used the veto pen on the payscale last winter, said though the mayor must be careful vetoing decisions, the right is there for a reason, and that he will continue to exercise it.
“How should Skagway best pursue the development of affordable housing for the future needs of its residents?” Brady then asked the two candidates.
Bourcy said though initially the Dyea Point plots may not be affordable, it can be managed. He also mentioned the possibility of condominiums or small starter homes in an unoccupied block to provide affordable housing.
Cochran said he wants to change appraisers and research all options, as affordable housing is a main priority.
In response to a question concerning the role the new borough should play in negotiations with future users of the port, both candidates commented about the variety of possibilities in the port.
Cochran said the assembly needs to encourage the use and expansion of the port and to stay in contact with White Pass, who leases harbor tidelands, as changes and developments are pursued. Bourcy also listed several players in the port and its future: White Pass, the city and the state. He said the ore terminal facility needs to be modernized and the city must leverage its position as landowner.
“One key to diversifying the economy is to get the ore dock free,” he said.
The final question put to the candidates was if the new Skagway Clinic design is excessive with nine exam rooms and a projected cost of $9 to 12 million. Both candidates answered to the affirmative.
Bourcy said he would like to reduce the facility, but the grant money is very specific.
“That horse has kind of left the barn,” he said.
Bourcy said plans for the clinic include means for closing part of it during the winter months. He added the facility will be used for the next 100 years and that a single accident, particularly in the summer, could fill all nine exam rooms.
The first audience member to query the candidates was Steve Jaklitsch, who asked where the candidates intend to put the estimated $4 million the city is anticipating from the cruise head tax.
Bourcy identified costs to offset the impacts of the cruise industry, namely port development, public safety and the clinic. Cochran agreed, saying the city can get creative with the specifications set by the state.
Borough assembly candidate Dennis Corrington asked if the candidates would use the cruise head tax to buy the waterfront lease back from White Pass. Cochran said it is something to look into, while Bourcy said it would not be so easy.
“I think we can get there and I would push to get there,” he said.
Cory Thole asked the mayoral candidates the same question he asked of the borough assembly candidates, quizzing them on why they saw themselves as the best candidate to demonstrate to the state the efficacy of incorporating Skagway as a borough in light of the history of the borough petition.
“When I got on as mayor, I didn’t know how to spell it,” Bourcy said. “I’ve certainly lived it.”
He said Skagway is a borough, and all that is happening with the election is an affirmation and asking for recognition of that. He said Skagway can show Alaska it made the right decision.
Cochran concluded the discussion and the forum by offering a joke and a reason for audience members to vote for him.
“I think [Bourcy] needs a break,” he said, after all his work on borough incorporation.

PHOTO OF THE WEEK

FIRST KING OF '07 – Jim Krob of California, left, caught the first king of the season last week on a charter with Captain Gary Beck aboard Chilkoot Charters’ vessel Sweet Thing. Read more about first fish of the season in Fish This! - selected Alaska's best outdoor and sports column of 2006. Andrew Cremata

• GRADUATION DAY: Photos and Notable Quotations from the SHS Commencement, Scholarship listing, K Grad readers

• SKAGWAY SPORTS & REC.: Annual SHS Awards, Track team scores at regionals

• FISH THIS!: It's all about the wait, the wait, the wait....

• OBITUARIES: Blodwen Reed

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