Downtown springs back

Tourist-oriented businesses prepare for a 6 percent increase in cruise ship passengers this season

Posted: Tuesday, April 18, 2000

Tourism is still a growth industry in Juneau.

Business leaders say they expect the local economy to make at least as much from visitor traffic this summer as it did in 1999.

``We continue to see an increase in cruise ship passengers, and there's a continued flattening of the independent travel market,'' said John Mazor, president of the Juneau Convention and Visitors Bureau. ``Basically, everybody is looking at a status quo season.''

Despite political conflicts over the role of tourism in Juneau, merchants are generally expecting another good season economically.

``I think there's a lot of guarded optimism among all of us down here that it'll be business as usual,'' said Terry Harvey, owner of the Armadillo Tex-Mex Cafe on South Franklin Street. ``You can see inventories rolling in by the van load. People are scurrying getting ready. That's always a good sign.''

There is an expected 6 percent increase in cruise ship passengers, based on the recently released schedule, Mazor said. The schedule indicates 632,000 passengers, up from 595,595 in 1999, he said.

The increase comes despite the cruise lines' opposition to the passenger head tax enacted by voters last fall.

``There doesn't seem to be much of an impact,'' said Harvey, a member of the pro-tourism organization Destination Juneau. ``So be it.''

So far, the consequences of the head tax have been slight: Holland America dropped its charitable contributions in Juneau, and Princess Cruises announced shorter port hours.

``Obviously, most merchants are a little disappointed that some of the cruise ships are going to be pulling out a little bit early,'' said Reecia Wilson, past president of the Downtown Business Association and co-owner of Hangar on the Wharf. ``I think this season we're going into a lot of unknowns.''

Goldbelt, Juneau's Native corporation, is positioned well for the upcoming season, President and CEO Gary Droubay told the Juneau Chamber of Commerce last week.

The corporation, which has made major investments in tourism in recent years, already has booked about 90 percent of available seats for its Glacier Bay cruises, and its lodging properties are getting reservations at last year's pace, Droubay said.

A question mark is the Mount Roberts Tramway, which has yet to show a profit.

``Walk-up sales really decline when the weather goes to hell,'' he said.

Independent travel to Juneau, estimated at about 135,000, is expected to remain constant, based on bookings to date, said Mazor of the Juneau Convention and Visitors Bureau. He added that concerns about high gas prices and the stock market devaluation could affect the numbers.

Jeff Watts, co-owner of the Fireweed House Bed & Breakfast in North Douglas, said he's not too worried about a dropoff in independent travel. ``A tank of gas isn't going to break somebody,'' he said.

His reservations are down somewhat from a year ago, ``but I expect it to fill up,'' Watts said. ``I think they're getting later and later making their reservations.''

While there is a slight increase expected in overall visitation, there are other signs of economic health in the industry, Mazor said.

He noted that there are new tours being offered and new properties being opened.

The latest tour package announced involves the ore-conveyor tunnel linking the Alaska-Juneau gold mine and the historic Gastineau mill. Jerry Harmon, who is completing reclamation of the mine for Kvaerner Environmental, developed the tour with his wife, Beverly. Tours begin May 10, and Harmon says he's working on a promotional arrangement with Princess.

Mazor also cited the presence of a new tour company, Northern Sights. The company will offer trips to the Mendenhall Glacier in a fully restored 1937 touring car and whale-watching boat trips with underwater cameras.

A new B-and-B, the Garside House, will open downtown soon. A Spokane, Wash., woman, Valerie Fremlin, is also opening a gift shop downtown, and the Alaska Gem Co. has constructed a new building there, Mazor said.

Locals are investing, as well.

Mike Tripp, president of Timberwolf Ventures, is expanding his business presence downtown.

Next month, Tripp is opening Alaska Express, a convenience store and liquor store on the site of the former City Cafe on South Franklin.

Although he's not sure what the mix of locals and tourists will be, ``The location alone says it's going to be a cruise ship passenger destination,'' he said. ``We'd like to be year-round. If there's enough local support, I'd love to stay open.''

Tripp, who also runs Timberwolf Gift Shop, Juneau Shirt Co. and Skagway Shirt Co., has purchased a vacant lot across Franklin on the site of the former Miners Hall, which he plans to rebuild. The former building, torn down in the mid-'90s, housed the Crystal Saloon, among other businesses. ``It'll be retail. What and how much, we don't know yet.''

Tripp said he remains bullish on downtown. ``It's definitely a viable part of Juneau's economy.''

Harvey, the restaurateur, said he expects every last lot on Franklin to be developed. ``There's still room for growth down here.''

Chamber of Commerce President Kathy Kolkhorst said the city needs to greet visitors warmly and plan better for the continuing growth.

``I think that the business community would like each visitor to town to have a positive experience,'' she said.

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