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Icy Strait Point celebrates 10 years of tourism

For residents, city's transformation about more than sales taxes and jobs

Posted: May 25, 2014 - 12:08am
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The old fish house, foreground, and the old cannery seen in the background was renovated in 2004.   PHILLIP MOSER | FOR THE JUNEAU EMPIRE
PHILLIP MOSER | FOR THE JUNEAU EMPIRE
The old fish house, foreground, and the old cannery seen in the background was renovated in 2004.

After the last of the cruise ship passengers were tendered back to their ship Friday afternoon, employees of Icy Strait Point locked up the souvenir shops in the century-old cannery, turned off the lights in the old fish house — now a room for tourists to sign up for tours and excursions — and closed out the registers at the restaurants and bars lining the boardwalk.

It was time to celebrate.

Friday marked the 10th anniversary of Icy Strait Point as a cruise ship destination, a milestone and source of pride for the Native Alaskan-owned resort, which has transformed Hoonah from a sleepy village to one that’s driven by tourism.

“Icy Strait Point has had its ups and downs,” Russell Dick, the chairman of Huna Totem Corporation, told the throngs of employees inside ISP’s Native Theater during the ceremony. “But it’s been an incredible journey to where we are today.”

Hoonah’s Native Corporation, Huna Totem Corp., bought the old salmon cannery in the 1990s after it had been closed for years. The corporation invested about $30 million to renovate it and other properties on the grounds more than a decade ago to create ISP.

ISP director of special projects Johan Dybdahl, who gave a historical presentation at the ceremony, said it was a “very, very big idea” to turn the cannery into something else, and the risk has paid off. It’s given locals job opportunities and benefitted the city of Hoonah, he said.

ISP generated $371,770 in city sales taxes for Hoonah last year alone. Over the past decade, it’s contributed $2.2 million in taxes to the Chichagof Island community.

“It’s been 10 years of success,” added Paul White, also associated with Huna Totem. White said board members were brainstorming ideas of what to do with the land back in the early 2000s, when someone joked that they should turn it into a “tourist trap.” People laughed at the notion at first, tut then the laughter stopped — the proposal might actually work.

“It was literally almost by accident,” White said.

If it’s a trap, tourists are happy to be ensnared. On Friday, tourists off the Holland Amsterdam snapped pictures of whales breeching in the water, rode the ZipRider — the world’s second-longest zipline — and walked through nature trails.

“I’ve never seen anything as pretty as this,” Amerstam crew member Djura Brinkman, a 25-year-old from the Netherlands, said as she walked along the beach with her co-worker, Chris Lindsay, 31, from High Point, N.C.

“I’ve been looking forward to this,” Lindsay said.

Craig Burnes, 61, had his Go Pro strapped to his chest to capture the 90 second ride down the zipline, which travels at 60 miles per hour.

“It was awesome,” he said, smiling.

Burnes and his partner of 22 years, Dana Morano, said they aren’t really the “cruise ship types” — they prefer to ride their motorcycles on rugged terrain for recreation. For them, meeting the locals was the best part.

“We’d much rather see local Alaskan communities than developed commercial areas,” Morano said, noting she grew up in Hawaii and avoided tourist traps “like the plague.

“We’re on a cruise, but we’re not really cruise ship people. I’d rather hang out with locals.”

Icy Strait Point hires almost all local residents, most of whom (85 percent) are Huna Totem shareholders or descendants of shareholders.

“Pretty much everybody is local,” ISP vice president of operations Tyler Hickman told the Empire, adding that the farthest away someone is from is Juneau.

That’s exactly why Hoonah residents have embraced ISP.

“It was the job opportunity,” said Heather Brown, a 29-year-old who was raised in Hoonah and now spends her summers ringing up customers at the Crab Station. Brown said she wishes the resort was open year-round.

“It’s hard to find a year-long job here,” she said, then pausing for a moment. “Although it would suck to stand out here in the winter.”

Harriet LeBlanc, a bartender at ISP’s Landing Zone Bar, said before ISP she did odd jobs from babysitting to tending bar at the downtown Hoonah Office Bar, owned by her sister.

“Before tourism, it was boring,” she said. “It really was. No jobs — nothing.”

She said she likes meeting new people every day.

“I like to call them my new friends,” she said.

LeBlanc’s nephew, Stephen Weitzel, also works at ISP as a driver, transporting people 1,700 feet up a mountain to get to the top of ZipRider tower. Before ISP, he drove trucks down south.

“I just wanted a change in scenery,” he said.

Julie Jackson, also born and raised in Hoonah, left her longtime job as a school instructor to work at ISP in 2003, helping build the nature trails and grooming the beaches. Now, she’s the shore excursions director.

Jackson said one of the neat things about ISP is it allows local residents to grow into “leaders, actors, drivers and guides.”

“I continue to be impressed with how all of this has evolved,” the 52-year-old said, noting she left her old job behind because, “I gave it all up when Huna Totem bought this place because I knew it was going to be big. I wanted to be a part of it.”

“People were having a hard time accepting” the idea of turning Hoonah into a tourist destination at first, Jackson added. But “as it opened up, local people started opening up, too, because of the jobs.”

ISP’s Hickman said the company’s 120 employees were paid a total of $2.2 million last year alone.

Jackson was one of 18 employees, all of whom have deep ties to Hoonah, honored Friday at the ceremony inside the Native Theater. The 18 have all been with ISP from the start.

The first cruise ship, the Celebrity Mercury, stopped in Hoonah on May 23, 2004. Dybdahl remembered that everyone was outside waiting to greet the tourists when they saw the ship come into Port Frederick waters, directly across from ISP, but it cruised right past them and toward downtown Hoonah.

“It went around the bay,” he laughed.

The Mercury was one of 32 ships that year. This year there will be 73, carrying a total of 140,000 passengers and 80,000 crew members.

Local Hoonah resident Jessica Mattson said sometimes it’s “weird” to see so many people in her hometown.

“It’s much more than our population,” she said. Hoonah’s population is 765.

But Mattson said she can’t complain because “it’s good for the economy.”

She and her boyfriend, Darrel Sharclane, were walking down ISP’s boardwalk on their day off work after eating cheeseburgers at the Cookhouse Restaurant. They don’t work at ISP, but they came to see all their friends and family who do, Sharclane said.

“ISP makes everybody closer,” he said.

• Contact reporter Emily Russo Miller at 523-2263 or at emily.miller@juneauempire.com.

Editor’s Note: An earlier version of this article incorrectly stated that ISP’s 120 employees have been paid a total of $2.2 million since the resort opened. ISP’s employees were paid $2.2 million last year alone.

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