Ward Cove developers race to get facility at new cruise ship dock ready north of Ketchikan
ANCHORAGE, Alaska (KTUU) - Developers at Ward Cove, the site of a new cruise ship dock 7 miles north of Ketchikan, are racing to get a welcome center ready for the first passengers arriving there next month.
John Binkley, a Fairbanks-based businessman heading the $50-million project, said building the center had slowed with the COVID-19 pandemic. The announcement in May that large cruise ships could bypass Canada and come to Alaska in 2021 kicked the project back into gear.
“It’s been a rollercoaster,” Binkley said.
The finished dock is built to house two of the largest cruise ships currently operating at one time. It floats, allowing it to rise and fall with Ketchikan’s mammoth tides.
The visitor’s center, called the Mill at Ward Cove, still needs to be completed. Passengers are set to step off their ships into a long-shuttered pulp mill. Their first sight will be a recreation of the Tongass National Forest inside a 57,000 square-foot warehouse, allowing tourists to get close to its iconic trees.
“We want everyone who comes here to have some sort of experience like that,” Binkley said.
There are plans for an auditorium, a museum showcasing the history of the mill and logging, and light refreshments. Refurbished rail cars imported from Canada will show how pulp was transported south to market when the mill operated.
But not all of the planned amenities will be ready by mid-August when the first passenger ship arrives in Ward Cove, Binkley said.
“The toilets will flush, you can wash your hands!” he joked.
The project has attracted concerns from Ketchikan residents. Around 469,000 cruise ship passengers are slated to come to Ward Cove in 2022, Binkley said, or roughly one-third of the 1.3 million that were anticipated to arrive in 2020 before the pandemic hit.
Ketchikan Mayor Bob Sivertsen explained that is expected to cause a revenue drop for the city with moorage fees and head tax revenue going to Ward Cove Group’s private investors.
“I don’t know the exact number on that but it’s going to be millions over a period of time,” he said.
Other cruise companies have expressed interest in using downtown berths, Sivertsen added, which could make up for the shortfall and increase how many cruise ships come to Ketchikan.
Ward Cove is set to have busses to take tourists into the city and off on tours through a private road that cuts across the island, bypassing the congestion of downtown.
Some downtown business owners are worried that could result in less foot traffic; others wonder how a two-lane highway out to Ward Cove will handle all that extra traffic.
“I’m a little concerned, there’s a lot of unknown factors with what’s going to happen with Ward Cove,” said Hamilton Gelhar, owner of Fish Creek Co., a gift store on Creek Street.
But there could be benefits to shifting more cruise ship passengers away from the center of town.
“You can have the economic benefit without the negative impacts of so many people in a very small space,” Binkley said.
The pulp mill closed its doors in 1997 after four decades in operation. Hundreds of jobs were lost, and the community faced a reckoning.
“Ketchikan had to figure out how to reinvent itself in regards to future economic development,” Sivertsen said. “It was pretty tough.”
Cruise ships have been that change. The visitor’s bureau estimates they provide $190 million annually in passenger spending and have created 1,750 direct and indirect local jobs in Ketchikan.
The pulp mill is effectively a symbol and a representation of Southeast Alaska’s shift from being dominated by a primary industry to the service industry. Binkley agrees and says Ward Cove could once again be critical for the city’s fortunes.
“The mill really is being revitalized into a new economic engine for Ketchikan,” he said.
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