As the final dock pilings are drilled, a Hoonah controversy is put to rest

The final pilings for a new cruise ship dock are being driven at a Hoonah tourist attraction, marking an end to the nearly decade-long saga that divided the community. The publicly financed dock is being built where it serves a local Native corporation’s interests, only indirectly benefiting residents — although many are also shareholders.

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On the grounds, tourists wander in and out of a historic salmon cannery turned museum. They skim the treetops on more than a mile of zipline and bask in front of a crackling wood fire that an employee keeps going.

The location of the new dock at Icy Strait Point. (Photo by Elizabeth Jenkins/KTOO)
The location of the new dock at Icy Strait Point. (Photo by Elizabeth Jenkins/KTOO)

Tyler Hickman is the vice president of Icy Strait Point, owned by the Huna Totem Corp. He says it’s important to maintain the cannery’s off-beat charm.

“It just starts feeling fake when you overdo something,” he says. “We try to make sure that everything we do is authentic.”

Part of that is making sure visitors feel comfortable when they arrive and leave. About 150,000 cruise ship passengers travel to Hoonah each year. To get to Icy Strait Point, they have to schlep over on a small tender boat. There’s no place for the big ships to dock.

Tender boats drop off passengers from the ship. (Photo by Elizabeth Jenkins/KTOO)
Tender boats drop off passengers from the ship. (Photo by Elizabeth Jenkins/KTOO)

Hickman points to 60 people on a cruise ship waiting for a tender to transport them to shore. In the future, he says, those passengers will be able to grab their raincoat and wander off the boat on their own.

From there, they could walk through second-growth forest. Not everyone is as enchanted with the location of what Hickman estimates is a $22 million dock, paid for primarily by a grant from the state.

Ken Skaflestad is a shareholder in the Native corporation. He says before the cruise ships started arriving back in 2004, the village felt like a different place. Its population was around 750.

“I remember a day when somebody might wear their pajamas down to pick up the newspaper or groceries on a Saturday morning. If a cruise ship’s in town, that’s changed now,” he says.

A mile past Icy Strait Point’s traffic gate is the city of Hoonah. Tourists shuttle through for bear watching tours and to ride the zipline.

Back in the mid-2000s, the city proposed a multi-use dock located closer to the city center.

An employee in uniform answers tourists questions about a real halibut carted around the boardwalk. (Photo by Elizabeth Jenkins/KTOO)
An employee in uniform answers tourists questions about a real halibut carted around the boardwalk. (Photo by Elizabeth Jenkins/KTOO)

“This commercial dock that was going to help with barging, that was going to help with freighting, was going to be a place for fishing boats to tie up to,” he says.

Cruise ships weren’t the main focus, but Skaflestad says the conversation shifted after the success of Icy Strait Point as a tourist destination. A public-private partnership was created. The state put in $14 million to build the dock; the corporation put in $8 million. Although the inclusion of cruise ships was decided, the location of the dock wasn’t.

Skaflestad says the Icy Strait Point developers disagreed with where the community wanted the dock, which was about 800 feet toward town from their existing facility.

The city selected Shaman Point. He says the argument became not only about where it should be, but also what: a multipurpose dock close to downtown or a cruise ship dock on private land.

“I can say that I was one … that adamantly took opposition to that whole initiative.”

And the town, he says, was split down the middle.

“I refer to it as World War III. It was horrible,” he says.

Tourists explore the grounds of Icy Strait Point. (Photo by Elizabeth Jenkins/KTOO)
Tourists explore the grounds of Icy Strait Point. (Photo by Elizabeth Jenkins/KTOO)

A Royal Caribbean executive sent a letter to the city stating that if the dock was built at Shaman Point, cruise lines might not moor there. Skaflestad says the cruise ship passenger experience outweighed the community’s interests in the dock.

“The opinion of the customer’s experience was touted to far outweigh the community’s need to all of the other uses other than a cruise ship dock,” Skaflestad says.

Eventually, the city council turned over. A new mayor was elected and it was decided the dock would be built at Icy Strait Point. Skaflestad says he never did agree with how everything went down. But when he became mayor in 2014, he wanted to make the best of it.

“I had to really work to be open minded about this and listen to the other points of view. The other opinions were that right now the important thing is the development of this industry and that those other uses are really relatively small uses. They’re not going to be big booms to our economy or anything,” he says. “Truthfully, this dock, it’s primarily income that’s  going to come through the cruise ships.”

As the final pilings go in, Tyler Hickman says there’s no need to discuss what happened in the past.

“To me, it’s about today. When you go and walk around the corner, it’s being installed where it is and it’s in the right place,” Hickman says. “The experience the cruise ship guest is going to have is going to be the best in the world.”

The new dock could attract more cruise lines such as Disney, which would mean more visitors to Icy Strait Point and Hoonah.

Skaflestad says he’s trying to be welcoming. He leads the bear watching tours when they get overbooked. He says before, the locals just wanted the tourists to pass right through.

“This metamorphosis has happened and the town is saying ‘I can make a buck here,’ ‘Hey, I’m finding a little niche over here,’ or ‘I’m just going to sit here like I used to sit and watch the birds on the beach and now I’m going to watch tourists,’” Skaflestad says. “There’s this significant change that the presence of these visitors has brought to Hoonah.”

The dock is expected to be completed in October just as Icy Strait Point closes for the season.