New Task Force to Plan Future of Sitka Tourism


A new task force will now deal with tourism in Sitka. Sitka’s meeting Tuesday/last night (3-14-23) approved the creation of a new “tourism task force” designed to study and plan the town’s approach as it prepares for increased cruise traffic in 2023 and beyond.

A short term tourism plan drafted by the Sitka Planning Commission put the city through a record cruise season in 2022. But that plan was always meant to be a brake — and now the torch has been passed. Over the next year, a new “tourism task force” will dive into everything from land use regulations and coastal development to how many cruise passengers Sitka can reasonably accommodate… The ultimate goal? To develop a long-term tourism management strategy for a city that expects more than 500,000 cruise visitors this summer – the most it has ever seen by a wide margin.

To the nine-member group, the assembly will appoint one representative from the “downtown business corridor,” one member representing tours and attractions, one representing business at large, one from the Sitka Sound Cruise Terminal and two members. The Sitka Tribe of Alaska, the Ports and Harbors Commission and the Sustainability Commission will also appoint one member each to the task force.

Only one person commented on the decision to create a working group. Richard Wynne said the interests of business and the tourism industry were too strongly represented.

“I think they need to increase the number of community members to at least four to have some parity with businesses,” Wayne said. “Clearly what business wants is more business and they are stakeholders and they may not have the opinion of the average citizen.”

Assemblyman Chris Ystad said they’ve heard from a handful of Sitkanians who feel the same way. But they had received equal support for more industry representation on the task force.

“And given that I’ve had complaints about how places are favored one way or the other, on both sides, I feel like we’ve struck a good balance, or at least a close one, because nobody’s happy. And I think it’s a good place to be,” Ystad said. “Hopefully this will get us a good discussion and some good, interesting results.”

And Assemblyman Tim Pike said he thinks all the task force representatives will be “sifted” first.

“And then they take on other roles in our community,” Pike said. “And I think they all have Sitka’s best interest at heart. This is my belief. And I think this task force will deal with that.

Assemblyman Tor Christianson thought there would be limits to what the task force could do, but it would be busy nonetheless:

“I guess it will be good to do what the short-term plan did, which is figure out where we can do better,” Christianson said. “But as far as the tourism levels in Sitka, I don’t think, frankly, he’s going to have the power to do much about it.” But there will be ongoing work to talk about things … everything from the footpaths we talked about tonight to the levels we close downtown or do we close downtown?” he added, saying it would be good to see that work removed by the Planning Commission.

With little debate, the assembly voted unanimously to create the task force. It must appoint the nine members by the end of April. The task force then has a year to make its final recommendations to the assembly, which could include establishing a standing committee on tourism.

In other business Tuesday night (3-14-23), the Sitka Assembly authorized the city administrator to apply for two federal grants to fund walking trails and road improvements on Harbor Drive and Raptor Way.

If the city receives grants from the Transportation Alternatives Program, it would fund a $1.7 million project for Raptor Way, with a 9 percent match from the state DOT and a 5 percent match from the city, about $86,000.

The second grant application, if selected, would fund $1.5 million for a crosswalk on Harbor Drive, including a 9 percent match from the state and a 5 percent match from the city — about $75,000. The high cost was estimated by the DOT and includes design and construction — both of which will be administered by the state.

The assembly also went behind closed doors at the end of the session to discuss four lawsuits in which the city is a defendant. The Assembly spent just under an hour in executive session, and when it returned, Mayor Steven Eisenbeis said the Assembly had received some updates on “some long-standing cases that may have some progress” and one new case from the city attorney, but revealed no more details.

Court records show three of the cases involve the former city-owned Sitka Municipal Hospital. Two are civil suits against former Sitka Community Hospital doctor Richard McGrath, who pleaded guilty to sexual assault earlier this month. The third lawsuit was filed by Kimberly Gleason against the hospital, SEARHC and Jeffrey Bentley, a physician assistant. It alleges medical negligence in Bentley’s treatment of her child in 2018. According to court documents released today, the parties have reached a pending settlement. A fourth lawsuit was filed in U.S. District Court earlier this month, with plaintiff Ronald Dick suing the Sitka Police Department, alleging SPD discriminated against him and violated the Americans with Disabilities Act.

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