Wrangell needs more than deepwater dock

The port commission last week declined to recommend that the borough lease a portion of its newly purchased property at the former 6-Mile sawmill site for use as a scrap metal recycling yard. It was nothing against the recycling business — Channel Construction, out of Juneau — which previously used the property under its previous owner as a staging area for scrap metal collection.

Rather, port commissioners said they need more information before making a decision: The length of the lease, the terms and, perhaps most importantly, how it would fit into the borough’s long-term plan for the property.

In particular, a couple of commissioners asked how even a temporary lease for the scrapyard would affect hopes that a private party might develop the waterfront acreage for tourism use.

Commissioner Frank Roppel talked about how the deepwater site could be developed to boost Wrangell’s cruise ship traffic. He pointed to Huna Totem’s investments in building cruise terminals at Hoonah, Klawock, Juneau and Whittier. “It’s stunning to me to see the amount of huge investment going into cruise passenger facilities,” Roppel said.

All true. Other communities eagerly attract or, in Klawock’s case, will soon attract many more than the 19,000 or so cruise ship passengers expected in Wrangell this summer. Those other ports, and their developers, focus on larger ships, providing the Three A’s — amenities, attractions and activities — to entertain and educate travelers.

Wrangell can offer a lot for visitors, including Anan Wildlife Observatory and Stikine River tours, an impressive museum, petroglyphs, trails and more. The offerings match well with the passenger loads on smaller and mid-size cruise ships, but fall short of what would be needed if a larger ship with 2,000 passengers or more docked in town and the visitors tried to squeeze into the community’s limited facilities and tours.

Big ships are not the easy answer for Wrangell’s economic future. It would require a substantial investment of public and private funds to build up the activities and facilities for the larger passenger loads.

For example, tour operators would need to invest major-league dollars into building additional boats to accommodate a lot more guests, but they can’t do that unless they know enough passengers will show up every summer to cover the costs. Restaurants would need to staff up and expand their hours to handle the heavier traffic. Neither the chicken nor the egg comes first — it’s knowing someone will buy all the eggs before expanding the hen house.

Having a deepwater site is an attraction for tourism developers looking for a new dock site, but the town’s plan also needs to consider what all those visitors would do when they get off the ship. And would the cruise lines see Wrangell as an attractive enough destination to bump another town off the itinerary so that they can remain on their seven-day cruise schedule?

The port commission is right to ask the questions, and the community needs to ask questions: What can it provide visitors? How many people does it want in town? Are businesses willing and able to handle more traffic?

Tourism is about more than just having deep water.

— Wrangell Sentinel


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