Ferry rally livestreams to audience of thousands

AMHS: Rally excluded from ferry terminal for liability reasons

Former mayor Kelly Weaverling, left, rallies a demonstration in favor of improved ferry service. (Feb. 11, 2020) Photo by Zachary Snowdon Smith/The Cordova Times

Roughly 150 demonstrators gathered near the Cordova Ferry Terminal Tuesday, Feb. 11, urging the state to address its growing transportation crisis.

The icy stretch of pavement may have seemed an out-of-the-way venue for a rally, but an online video stream operated by the Cordova Chamber of Commerce ensured the event was seen by thousands. The rally was the latest in a series of increasingly frustrated public gestures in opposition to cuts to Alaska Marine Highway System service that have left Cordova without service since September.

Speakers included a who’s who of community leaders such as Cordova School District Superintendent Alex Russin, Cordova Arts and Pageants Board Member Ron Andersen, Native Village of Eyak Tribal Council Chairman Darrel Olsen, City Councilman Ken Jones and Mayor Clay Koplin.

“It’s been five months since we’ve had a ferry,” Koplin said. “You can see it in our empty store shelves, you can see it in the lack of economy and commerce that we have. I had dinner last night — there was one restaurant open, because they just don’t have the business … to justify staying open this winter.”

Koplin proposed keeping a ferry stationed in Prince William Sound, where crew would be able to integrate into the community.

Cordova Chamber of Commerce Executive Director Cathy Renfeldt was among the leaders of a rally in support of the Alaska Marine Highway System. (Feb. 11, 2020) Photo by Zachary Snowdon Smith/The Cordova Times

Jones addressed the crowd more in his capacity as a businessman than as a city councilman, lambasting the idea that a privatized ferry service would pay for itself.

“I run a transportation service,” Jones said. “I can tell you that private enterprise will never be able to replace the ferry. It is not feasible. The amount of money that I would have to charge to make it a profitable venture… is not feasible.”

Other speakers drew attention to the impact of ferry outages on commercial fishermen, students, performing artists and competitive athletes. Cordova Chamber of Commerce Executive Director Cathy Renfeldt urged rally participants to read a study by the McDowell Group showing the AMHS has produced an indirect economic return of roughly 2.3-to-1 in recent years.

The rally was initially planned to take place inside the Cordova Ferry Terminal building. Although staff at the building did not object, AMHS management determined that the building could not be used to host the rally, for liability reasons. While consulting with police on the logistics of the rally, Renfeldt was informed that the adjoining state-owned parking lot was also off-limits, she said. The rally was moved to a city-owned area near the parking lot.

High schooler Anika Witsoe participates in a rally supporting improved ferry service. (Feb. 11, 2020) Photo by Zachary Snowdon Smith/The Cordova Times

“I think it’s interesting,” Renfeldt said. “I’ve got a lot of thoughts on it. I’m still processing those thoughts. But I truly believe that the staff members of the Alaska Marine Highway System, especially the local staff members, are supportive.”

AMHS management were grateful and pleased about the rally, said Ferry Terminal Agent Tammy Johnson. Closing state-owned property to the rally, and shutting down the ferry terminal building during the rally, were not intended as a repudiation of protesters’ demands, she said. However, protesters’ suspicions of these measures underscored a growing mistrust between Cordova residents and state institutions.

The rally was part of a statewide series of demonstrations held simultaneously at noon on Feb. 11. A rally on the steps of the Alaska State Capitol drew roughly 200 participants. Rallies were also held in Kodiak, Valdez, Anchorage, Petersburg and elsewhere in Alaska.