"The smaller ships like coming here (because) it's the heart of downtown," said Port Director John Stone with the Juneau Department of Docks and Harbors.
These "smaller ships" are around 760 feet long.
Only three of Juneau's four cruise ship docks can accommodate a 950-foot Panamax ship. More than a dozen proposals are being looked at to accommodate an additional Panamax by 2011.
Only three of Juneau's four cruise ship docks can currently accommodate Panamax ships, though. The City and Bureau of Juneau hope to change that by 2011.
"In the old days it wasn't a big deal, because there were some Panamax and some smaller ships," Stone said. "Now there are certain days when we've had only big ships come into town."
Ketchikan and Skagway, Juneau's "sister ports" both have four Panamax docks. Most of the Panamax ships include all three ports in their itineraries, but Stone said scheduling would be easier if Juneau had four Panamax docks.
The cruises ships skirt the dock shortage either by anchoring and tendering in passengers in or by "hot-berthing" in which one cruise ship leaves a dock midday and another immediately takes its place. Both options reduce the time passengers can spend in Juneau.
"I think businesses noticed," Stone said.
The assembly has certainly noticed. Assembly members have been discussing waterfront developments since 2000.
There are currently 15 proposals being considered for development to accommodate an additional Panamax ship at one of three different locations.
The downtown docks, which are owned by CBJ, could be developed as floating docks, allowing space for the additional security checkpoints that have been required since 2001.
The dock area between Merchant's Wharf and the Seadrome building could be rebuilt to accommodate a larger cruise ship.
The Gold Creek alternative, which was taken off the table in 2004, is now an option again. This proposal would involve the old Alaska Juneau Trust dock and land owned by the Alaska Mental Health Trust. CBJ owns the balance of the tidelands
"Another alternative is just rebuilding our existing docks," Stone said. "It's always the fallback."
Several waterfront business owners felt development was inevitable but were concerned about overdevelopment in the Marine Park area.
"(The large cruise ships) don't all need to be crushed down here," said a waterfront business owner who asked to remain anonymous. "Some breathing room might be nice."
She added that she didn't notice increased business from cruise ship passengers docked closer to downtown.
Stone does not anticipate a dramatic increase in cruise ship passengers if a new Panamax dock is constructed.
"I haven't heard anyone saying they're bringing bigger ships in," he said.
A Panamax ship can hold approximately 2,000 passengers (and 1,000 crew), compared to 1,000 passengers in a smaller ship like the Zandam. Stone estimates that a new dock would allow the annual passenger count to increase by 80,000 at the most.
The Coast Guard will not allow more than five cruise ships in the port at once.
There were 30 days in the 2007 season in which a ship was anchored because it couldn't fit in the Alaska Steam Dock. Stone thinks the number of ships anchoring will stay the same, but the new dock will allow smaller ships to shift out to anchor while the larger ships can dock.
There will be several studies before any proposal can become a reality. A committee of two assembly members and two Docks and Harbors board members is planning an investigation of the effects of the different proposals from the navigational, logistical and economic standpoints.
All 15 potential development projects will be investigated from the navigational standpoint, Stone said. Next, cruise ship companies and stevedores will be asked to look at any operational concerns such as bus or pedestrian traffic.
Stone said that ideally there would be two or three preferred alternatives at that point. Contracted consultants would then look at the economic impacts to local businesses and local sales and property taxes. Specialists will also undertake a detailed traffic and pedestrian study, and a public poll is also a possibility.
The committee hopes to have the results of the studies to the assembly by the end of 2008.
The money for the selected project will come from the cruise ships.
"The cruise ships pay for all of it, one way or another," Stone said. "All of the money for all of this comes from cruise ship fees."
Cruise ship traffic in Juneau will always depend on a variety of factors, including the national and global economy and security issues. Stone said it is hard to predict changes in the cruise industry. Even those in the industry can only see into the near future.
"One of the difficulties is that they have a good feel for what will happen two to three years in advance, but after that they don't know," he said. "Generally they've concluded that if we have four Panamax births like Ketchikan and Skagway we should be okay for a while"
Katie Spielberger can be reached at email@example.com