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Gustavus looks to D.C. to keep Glacier Bay Lodge open

Posted: June 20, 2013 - 7:21pm  |  Updated: June 20, 2013 - 11:09pm

The community of Gustavus could be in dire straits if the National Park Service closes the Glacier Bay Lodge next year. In January, the NPS put out to bid the contract for concession services at the lodge. By the late-March deadline, no one had bid on the proposed contract, not even Huna Totem Corporation and the food services company Aramark. The two corporations provide services at the lodge as part of a joint venture. Their 10-year contract is up in December.

Gustavus business owners reached out to Sen. Lisa Murkowksi and Rep. Don Young. Murkowski and Young sent a letter to Secretary of the Interior Sally Jewell detailing the importance of the lodge to Gustavus and urging quick action. It also pointed a finger at the park service.

“What troubles us is that the NPS knows what the problem is,” the letter states. “As currently constructed, the prospectus for concession contract proposals is in no way viable for the concessionaire in the eyes of the private sector. The feedback NPS received from potential bidders was clear. Certainly, attracting zero bids should be an obvious enough statement.”

Locals raise concerns

JoAnn Lesh is the owner of the Gustavus Inn and the president of the Gustavus Visitors Association. The association has been active in getting local business owners to advocate for the Glacier Bay Lodge, but Lesh said it’s Murkowski and Young’s letter that she hopes will get the ball rolling toward a better concessionaire’s contract.

"The key problem for Gustavus businesses is that without the critical mass of people that the lodge brings here, we will not be able to support a lot of the great opportunities we have for tourists," Lesh said.

The contract with NPS requires the concessionaire to provide boat tours of Glacier Bay, ground transportation for tourists, fuel sales, lodging and other services that make travel to a remote area a little more comfortable. Without the lodge to provide these services, Lesh worries that the Gustavus economy would be devastated.

“We think it will cause an immediate loss,” Lesh said. “Then it will be a gradual decline which will make it even more difficult to get a (concessionaire’s) contract here.”

Park Service: ‘We hear you’

NPS Superintendent for Glacier Bay Susan Bourdreau said the community’s concerns aren’t lost on her.

“As a result of all this, we are working diligently to investigate options for the future,” Boudreau said. “We care about Gustavus and we have a number of tour operators and businesses that have been great with us. We want to do what we can to make this work.”

Boudreau said the NPS is currently considering three options. The first would be an extension of the contract with Aramark and Huna Totem, if acceptable terms can be agreed upon. The second would be to create a temporary contract for the boat tours provided by Aramark, which Boudreau said is the only element of the operation at Glacier Bay that can be continued on a temporary basis. The third option would be to revise the proposed contract and send it out for bid again, which Boudreau said is a daunting task.

“To do a prospectus, it takes two years,” Boudreau said. “We don’t have that much time.”

The contract that the NPS advertised in January includes a list of 192 repairs that need to be made in 2014 and 2015 by whoever is awarded the contract. The NPS estimates those repairs will cost $231,000. Between 2010 and 2012 the lodge averaged $1,916,211 in revenue. The proposed contract also requires the concessionaire to set aside three percent of its gross receipts each year for continued maintenance. The long list of repairs are all things Aramark and Huna Totem should have taken care of during their contract.

When asked if the NPS should be holding Aramark responsible for the deferred maintenance in its current contract instead of putting the burden on the next contract, Boudreau said that the economy was to blame. She said that the deferred maintenance was not negligence on Aramark’s part.

“The thing we have to remember is that Aramark, in all good faith, got this contract and they agreed to the responsibilities,” Boudreau said. “What happened in the 10 years is they weren’t making enough money to keep up with the maintenance.”

Boudreau said that Aramark has expressed interest in extending their current contract.

For now it’s business as usual in Gustavus. Lesh, the president of the visitors association, said this season has been a little slow to start but that local businesses are hoping for a good summer. Through the busy rush of summer tourists, Lesh always keeps the lodge in mind.

“The strength of that contract is what we rely on. We’ve all built our businesses around it,” Lesh said. “We’re just trying to find a way to make sure people visit.”

Sen. Mark Begich also sent a letter June 19 to National Park Service Director John Jarvis expressing concern about the potential closure of the Glacier Bay Lodge. 

Contact reporter Jennifer Canfield at 523-2279 or at jennifer.canfield@juneauempire.com.

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