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Seasonal workers double Healy's population

Posted: May 12, 2014 - 12:02am

HEALY — The population of Healy will double this summer when about 900 seasonal workers for Holland America/Princess move into housing at the town’s main intersection.

That process already has begun, with dormitory-style buildings moved from the canyon resort area to Homestead employee housing, 12 miles north of the resorts.

The employees who will live there work for Denali Princess Wilderness Lodge and McKinley Chalets Resorts. They will take a bus to and from work every day.

The change has local residents and resort managers concerned. Residents worry about the impact on the community of all those seasonal workers, and resort managers worry about mitigating that impact.

The big change came about because Holland-America/Princess, now known as HAP, purchased the McKinley Chalet Resorts. HAP is the land-based operation for both Holland-America and Princess cruise lines.

Several hundred seasonal workers already were living at the seasonal housing during past summers, but now about 930 seasonal workers will live there.

“Right now, we have a little over 900 beds reserved,” said Tad Whitaker, head of the services division. “One-hundred-thirty of that 930 are transient employees. They’re not here every night, depending on the rail schedule.”

One of the most noticeable changes is increased foot traffic at the busy Healy intersection, as seasonal employees walk to a local grocery and liquor store, and nearby bars and restaurants.

Princess manager Bonnie Westlund said the company already has begun conversation with the Denali Borough about ways to address the increase in summer population, particularly the foot traffic.

“We’re starting talks about bike paths, walking paths, whatever we can do to support the borough. We’re prepared to help get signatures or find ways to help donate,” she said.

Safety is the company’s primary concern, she added.

“It was hard last summer to make a left turn from the spur road onto the highway, because of foot traffic,” said Denali Borough Mayor Clay Walker. “And there were 430 employees living there last year. There will be another 500 people over there now. It’s just more challenging, because they do use that intersection to cross.”

There is no stoplight and no crosswalk.

Traffic should be slowed this year and next year by construction, which should help pedestrian traffic.

“We have that time to formulate a plan of what we’d like to see here,” the mayor said. “I would like to see that include pedestrian improvements.”

That would include bicycle and walking trails, he said.

A plan like that requires funding. He is considering developing a task force to address the issue.

“It’s gonna be a challenging summer,” he said. “We all have to keep our heads.”

An agency that will feel the brunt of this population boom is the Healy Post Office.

“We’ve been talking to the post office about head counts,” Whitaker said. “We invite employees to use our post office box.”

“We have about 120 boxes available,” said Dawn Peppinger, the postal service’s acting marketing manager for the Alaska District. “What we see typically in other communities within Alaska that have a lot of transients because of the tourist season, is that the company rents a box and just lets employees use that box number.

“Then they handle that on their own,” she said.

The postmaster in Healy has help from two part-time clerks, Peppinger said. They might be available to go full-time if mail volume grows, she said.

“As with any post office in Alaska, if there is an issue with staffing, the manager is involved and we look at the ability to hire flexible staff,” said added.

HAP Security will have a strong presence and make regular rounds of the Homestead. Part of those security rounds will include nearby residential areas, like Hilltop.

Many residents are worried about trespassing and already have discovered employees in their yards, on occasion even building bonfires on private property. One resident came upon an unattended campfire along Dry Creek during a walk last week. A seasonal employee showed up shortly thereafter to claim it as his.

Whitaker encouraged local residents to call him with any complaints or concerns. Those calls will be tracked to identify and address recurring issues, he said.

He said employees receive maps and instructions about respecting private property and they receive this information multiple times.

“We are getting our employees to self-police, to do neighborhood clean-ups, to be self-aware of everything that is going on. That, to me, is the biggest impact.”

“It comes down to self-policing,” he said. “Making a connection to this community.”

Managers try to help employees develop some ownership of their summer home.

Employees who don’t follow those rules should be reported to HAP, he said.

All employees undergo background checks before they are hired, Westlund said.

Meawhile, HAP hopes to work more closely with the community and help with community projects.

“The highway cleanup is one thing,” Whitaker said. “We are looking for more opportunities to have an even bigger impact.”

The company has added more positions to its human resources department, “all with the intent to engage our employees as much as we can,” Whitaker said. “We welcome any ideas for activities in Healy.”

Hourly shuttles will run to Denali National Park for employees who want to explore the area. Employees can take advantage of movie nights, photo contests, softball tournaments, karaoke, craft making and game night.

Shuttles for employees are also offered to Fairbanks once per week.

“Our door is always open,” Whitaker said. “If anybody missed the open house, if they want to see our operation, the invitation still stands.”

The Homestead front desk number is 683-1560.

___

Information from: Fairbanks (Alaska) Daily News-Miner, http://www.newsminer.com

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