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Partnership plans new cruise dock for Ketchikan

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The Virginia Maru, owned by Mitsubishi Steamship Company, loads the first export cargo from the Ketchikan pulp mill on July 8, 1963. The former pulp mill will soon be the site of a new cruise dock. Photo courtesy Alaska and Polar Regions Collections, Elmer E. Rasmuson Library, University of Alaska Fairbank, Ernest H. Gruening Papers, 1914-[1959-1969] 1974, UAF-1976-21-57344

In yet another example of the long-term commitment cruise lines are making in Alaska, two investor groups have teamed with Norwegian Cruise Lines to build a two-berth dock in Ketchikan’s Ward Cove, home of the now-closed Ketchikan pulp mill.

The dock will be able to accommodate the largest cruise ships that call on the state, including Norwegian’s Breakaway Plus Class ships, the Norwegian Bliss and Norwegian Joy. In exchange for its investment, Norwegian’s ships will receive preferential docking privileges.

This is the third partnership in recent months between private investor groups and cruise lines to build new docks or expand existing ones. Last year, Survey Point Holdings – comprised of Bob Berto, Ricky Smith and Jon Hemingway – teamed with Carnival Cruise Lines to buy the White Pass & Yukon Route’s rail and port operations in Skagway. The new owners quickly went to work to upgrade the aging facilities, including a “much-needed dolphin mooring at the end of the RR docks” and a floating component at the Ore dock,” according to Berto.

In December, Huna Totem Corporation and Norwegian announced plans to build a second dock at Icy Strait Point to handle the new class of megaships. Huna Totem Corporation broke ground on the project this spring with an anticipated completion date of 2020. The second dock is in a forested area about a half-mile farther from town than the existing dock. “We have the ability to develop it in a respectful way that allows all of the guests to have this wilderness experience without feeling crowded,” said Icy Strait Point Vice President of Operations Tyler Hickman.

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Drawing shows Ward Cove’s new dock.

For months, Ketchikan has been studying how to pay for a cruise-dock expansion, estimated to cost a whopping $150 million, and to relieve some of the congestion downtown. The city has four downtown cruise berths but can handle just one megaship at a time.

The pulp-mill site is about seven miles from Ketchikan’s historical downtown. The first phase, estimated at $50 million, will be the dock, a passenger terminal and welcome center. Subsequent phases will involve developing the pulp mill’s other buildings.

We want to “be able to show people the history of what the pulp mill meant to the region and, hopefully,  redevelop it as a new economic center that’s focusing on the major growing industry in southern Southeast, which is tourism,” said project spokesperson Trevor Shaw.

“A cruise ship dock at Ward Cove represents the best opportunity to grow the tourism economy of Ketchikan while not overcrowding the downtown area. If we want the entire community of Ketchikan to grow, we need to spread out our visitors,” said Dave Spokely, one of the owners of Power Systems & Supplies of Alaska, the company that bought the former pulp mill site in 2011. Andrew Spokely is the other owner.

Both the City and Borough agreed. “It looks like it offers a lot to the community as far as spreading out the tourism activity and potential for developing infrastructure in that area and then just the economic activity generated by new construction is certainly positive,” said Borough Mayor Dave Landis.

Powers Systems will lease the area to the Ward Cove Dock Group, which is 50% owned by the Spokelys and 50% by Godspeed Inc., which is owned by Skip, Ryan and James Binkley of Fairbanks. John Binkley, who is president of CLIA Alaska, is vice president but does not have an ownership interest.

In a recent speech to the Resource Development Council of Alaska, John Binkley said the key to sustainable growth is twofold. “We must improve the quality of life in communities we visit and protect the seas we sail.”

The Ward Cove Group hopes to have all permits in hand by fall so the facility can open in 2020.

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