When Sitkans learned they would be seeing a record breaking number of cruise passengers this summer, there were a lot of questions about how the town would accommodate the influx of people, from traffic flow to garbage. And swirling in the middle of all of those concerns were public toilets. Sitka had nowhere near enough. So the city had to scramble to find solutions, and that meant acquiring some high end toilet trailers and offering a unique grant program.
A typical porta potty is small, poorly lit, and smelly. Not exactly a prime tourist attraction. But when I found out the city was going to install several temporary bathrooms on Lincoln Street, I had to sniff out the situation myself. So one day this summer, I visited the big white trailer parked in front of the Pioneer Home.
I expect to find my vision obstructed and my sense of smell magnified. Instead, I walk into a bath of natural light filtering through a sunroof on the ceiling of the women’s bathroom. I turn to my left and see my reflection in a big mirror next to the door, with not one, but two sinks.
Several private stalls line the room, with doors that reached from the ceiling to the floor. The walls are gray with white wainscoting (I think it’s plastic wainscoting, but still). The toilets are low-flow and flush by pressing a pedal on the floor. I hold my microphone up to the toilet and press the pedal (this is a radio story after all) and the flushing sound is surprisingly quiet. A little anticlimactic, even.
This unit is one of three that’s been installed on Lincoln Street to accommodate what was originally predicted to be the biggest cruise year in Sitka’s history.
“Overall, they seem to function really well,” says Amy Ainslie, the city’s planning director. “They seem really sanitary, they’re kind of keeping the unpleasant parts of temporary bathrooms contained…not creating, you know, garbage or smell impacts for the rest of the area where they’re around.”
The big white trailers are hard to miss right on the downtown thoroughfare. That’s because getting them shipped here took some time.
“They came a little bit later in the season than we were hoping for, but you know, I’ll sing the same song that every industry, everyone, is talking about; supply chain,” Ainslie says. “We’re all dealing with those same issues.”
The units finally arrived in June. The city initially looked at installing them on private property where they could be attached to the city’s sewer system, and wouldn’t need to be pumped out. But Ainslie says they needed to install them fast, so placing the units on Lincoln Street without hard plumbing them was the simplest option.
But for next year, she says they’re looking at relocating some of them.
“So that would be my priority in terms of finding the right places for those to be is, first…making sure the community is kind of on board with where those end up, that they’re still in a useful, visible place, and an opportunity to connect them.”
Ainslie says they’ve gotten a bit of feedback about the bathrooms from Sitkans and she’s hoping for more in the coming weeks. So far, comments have run the gamut from folks suggesting new locations or ways to make the trailers more aesthetically pleasing, to requests for public access after cruising hours.
That last one presents a complication. All of the staff cleaning the bathrooms are paid with Cruise Passenger Excise Tax money. That’s Sitka’s share of the state head tax on every passenger who arrives in Alaska on a cruise ship. But that money is very restricted; it can only go toward things that directly benefit the passengers. Ainslie says if the city dedicated more resources to the temporary bathrooms, there could be more uses for them in the future.
“If we wanted to expand the use of those bathrooms a little bit and have…maybe a little bit more crew next summer so that more community activities could utilize them,” Ainslie says, “I think there’s definitely some opportunities to use those restrooms more , and not just for cruise passengers.”
But the trailers aren’t the only bathrooms newly open to the public, at least for the next month or so.
“There are a lot of tourists in town this summer. And we don’t mind people coming in,” says Joel Hanson– he directs Southeast Alaska Independent Living. SAIL is one of six businesses that participated in the city’s bathroom grant program that paid downtown businesses $1000 if they opened their hearts, and their toilets, to tourists this summer. SAIL’s building is a little way from downtown, but tourists do pass by often.
“And my thought was that a lot of folks would be accessing our trails in Sitka and kind of spreading out from the downtown corridor a little bit,” Hanson says. “So having a bathroom that is closer to the Cross Trail and…Swan Lake and some other places that tourists might be enjoying the summer might be helpful.”
So Hanson filled out the application. They got the cash, and their business was listed on a map provided to tourists by Visit Sitka.
Ainslie says she hopes to hear how the program worked for local businesses that participated to decide what changes the city may make to the program next year.
“So I don’t think it’s an idea worth giving up on yet,” Ainslie says. “But it didn’t get as quite as much take up this year.”
Hanson says they haven’t seen a lot of traffic, even during the busiest part of the season, but he’s happy to provide both of SAILS bathrooms as a community service, open for everyone.
“If you’re a local and you are here and you need a bathroom, since there’s not one right here by Swan Lake, we are happy to have you use our restroom as well.”