The Norwegian Bliss is docked at Ketchikan’s Berth 3. (KRBD photo by Leila Kheiry)

Following about three hours of presentations and public testimony, the Ketchikan City Council voted Wednesday to move forward with a request for proposals from cruise industry businesses interested in partnering on downtown port development.

But, the council also will review a separate development proposal from Ketchikan-based Survey Point Holdings, which owns the downtown dock’s Berth 4.

A good-sized crowd showed up at the Ted Ferry Civic Center for the council’s special meeting focused on the single topic of how to move forward with developing Ketchikan’s port.

The meeting started with a presentation from Luis Ajamil of Bermello, Ajamil and Partners. They’re a cruise industry consulting firm based in Miami, Florida. Ajamil noted that more cruise passengers are expected over the next few years, partly because of bigger ships entering Alaska’s market.

“The thought always (is), we go into a lot of these communities: ‘Just the smaller, mid-sized ships will come into our communities.’ But the reality is the industry is building the bigger ships,” he said. “That’s what’s driving the industry.”

Ketchikan’s port currently is limited in how many of those bigger ships can dock, and downtown infrastructure isn’t geared toward a significant increase in cruise passengers. Because of that, the city has been working toward redeveloping the port.

Ajamil walked through the history of Ketchikan’s port development plans, including the cost, which jumped to $150 million or more in recent cost estimates.

He says the announcement from Ward Cove Group about plans to build a private two-berth dock north of the city provides an opportunity for the city to scale back its own port reconfiguration, and focus more on uplands development.

“One of the big costs that we discussed is to put a sizeable number there that would go as part of the project that would allow the town to deal with growth issues, town improvements, quality of life issues,” he said.

The number they chose for those uplands improvements is $35 million. And, Ajamil says, that can be written in to a contract so there’s no dispute later about how the money is spent.

He says the city will determine in the RFP how much control the community retains.

Public comment on the city’s plan to develop its cruise infrastructure was mixed. Mary Stephenson, a local tour guide, says she has started a petition calling for the city to slow down the process.

“There needs to be a discussion on the definition of over-tourism, and the better management tools implemented to accommodate the influx based on projections by the cruise industry,” she said.  

Others agreed that the community should consider a cap on the number of cruise visitors per season.

Chuck Slagle owns seasonal businesses that rely on tourism. He says he’s more concerned about Ketchikan’s future now than he’s ever been.

“I think it’s important that we consider that the town, if we’re not careful, is not going to be something we’re proud of. If you go to the Caribbean, there’s lots of places where the people completely mourn what they used to have,” he said. “There’s a certain amount of business that’s really good for us, a certain amount we can maybe manage, and at some point if we’re not careful, 20 years from now we’re going to wonder just what the hell we did.”

Other speakers urged the council to move forward with dock improvements, and not slow the process down. Abby Bradberry, who works with the Great Alaskan Lumberjack Show, says the city already has been talking about and studying port expansion plans for three years.

“We already have ships coming to Alaska that bypass us because we don’t have the dock space,” she said. “And they would love to come here. So we really need to think about that. If we lose the cruise industry here, unfortunately Ketchikan as you all love it will be gone.”

Some speakers were OK with expanding the docks, but urged the council to partner with Survey Point Holdings rather than the cruise industry, because that business is locally owned.

Clay Keene is an attorney representing Survey Point Holdings. He says their proposal to expand Berths 1 and 2 would cost the city about $20 million.

The city’s RFP process would rely on an industry partner paying for improvements.

During council discussion, members agreed they wanted to move forward with the RFP process and take a closer look at Survey Point Holdings’ proposal.

Council Member Sam Bergeron says he’s concerned about successfully negotiating with industry representatives, and likes the option of working with a local group.

“I have a lot of trepidation about engaging with the multi-billion-dollar corporation about how we’re going to run our port or how we might structure that,” he said. “Seattle, Miami, Puerto Rico have done that. We’re not Seattle, Miami or Puerto Rico. We’re Ketchikan, Alaska. We’re a very small entity versus all of these other people. That gives me a lot of pause right there.”

Council Member Mark Flora says he wants to make sure that any project takes care of city residents. He says the city hasn’t done enough for the people and areas that aren’t directly connected to the cruise industry.

“And if we don’t get it right this time around, and I don’t think we did the last 20 years, by and large, we’re going to have a town that’s even more beat up, and less attractive, and less likely that our children will want to stay,” he said.  

The council voted unanimously to start the RFP process and review the Survey Point Holdings proposal. A draft RFP will come back to the council for review. And more public discussions are anticipated.