You know times are bad when even the bars are closing.
Last week, the Alaska Marine Highway announced it will close the bars aboard the ferries Kennicott, Malaspina, Matanuska, Tustumena, Taku and Columbia as a cost-cutting measure.
For years, the state had operated the bars at a loss, and the move will save about $750,000 per year — money that will be used to stave off service cuts.
We understand the move, but we can’t help but feel mixed emotions about it. Most adults who travel the Marine Highway frequently have ended up in one of these bars. Even if you don’t drink alcohol, the bars have long been refuges from the hordes of kids traveling on school trips, the crying babies in the forward lounge and the nonstop clicking of tourist cameras.
The disappearance of the ferry bar is another small death to the idea of the ferry as the social equalizer, where Alaskans of all kinds mixed with the drinks.
The ferry bar is a place where the pipeline welder and legislative lawyer talk, where a cheechako can meet and get to know someone born and raised in Angoon. It’s where we make friends and share stories. For many immigrants, the ferry is the first taste of Alaska.
The shipboard bar is older than the ferry system. The Alaska Steamship Company and its predecessors operated bars aboard their ships. Stampeders popped champagne in the shipboard bars of 1898, eagerly anticipating the can’t-miss riches that awaited them. In 1899, they drank water on their sober trips south.
We understand the need to close the ferries bars even as we regret it. The obvious joke is that only a government could lose money running a bar in Alaska, and we can’t help but wonder if there is an alternative.
Might the state instead make money from its bars by auctioning concessions to private enterprise? Imagine a Red Onion bar aboard the Malaspina or a Chilkoot Charlie’s experience aboard the Columbia. The state could charge a single fee for the concession, or even take a share of each drink sold.
The National Park Service and the federal government in general make millions of dollars each year from concessions in Denali National Park and other popular tourist destinations. Why couldn’t the Alaska Marine Highway do the same and turn a money-losing proposition into something that turns a profit?
We fear that without a shared space for socialization, the ferry experience will turn into yet another excuse to cuddle with a smartphone, tablet or paperback. The last frontier of social contact might instead turn to the solarium, where tobacco smoke mingles with marijuana smoke before trailing off into a dim wake.
— Juneau Empire, Jan. 29