© 2024 Milwaukee Public Media is a service of UW-Milwaukee's College of Letters & Science
Play Live Radio
Next Up:
0:00 0:00
Available On Air Stations

Residents Of Alaskan Town Receive Monthly Stipend Not To Move Away During Pandemic


Southeast Alaska's economy is getting hammered without cruise ship tourists, who stayed home due to the pandemic. So one tiny town is using its federal relief money to write monthly $1,000 checks to every resident, paying them not to move away. Claire Stremple reports from member station KHNS.

CLAIRE STREMPLE, BYLINE: The boardwalk-lined streets of Skagway, Alaska, are usually filled with tourists by midsummer. But this year, the streets are quiet.

REBECCA HYLTON: I became unemployed March 13.

STREMPLE: Like many people in town, Rebecca Hylton has depended on the tourism industry for decades. She ran marketing for a local brewpub. But no cruises means no business. She couldn't pay her mortgage until she and her 7-year-old son got their first $2,000 from the local government. Then she spent a little money downtown.

HYLTON: So right away, we bought some new boots for him, whereas before, I definitely would've questioned, can we get away with it? Or, like, no. You don't need rubber boots. It's summertime. You can wear your tennis shoes until they fall off your feet.

STREMPLE: Hylton says there's a lot of that going on - shopping while there's still some money on hand. The local bank's branch manager says there was a run on cash after people got their checks. Hylton isn't the only one whose income has taken a hit. Most of Skagway's roughly 900 year-round residents are in the same boat. Even local GOP leaders are onboard with this socialist experiment. Kathy Hosford is the local Republican Party organizer here and runs a bed and breakfast just outside of the remote town. She's open for business, but no one's coming.

KATHY HOSFORD: This promised to be our biggest year. Nearly everybody has canceled at this time.

STREMPLE: Skagway leaders feared that many residents, like Hosford, would leave the old gold rush town for good because without a way to make a living, why stay?

HOSFORD: It's very difficult when you depend on that income to make your mortgage payments. And I hate to be in line for a handout, but I don't know what else we're going to do at this point.

ANDREW CREMATA: The No. 1 goal was survival of the community.

STREMPLE: That's Skagway's mayor, Andrew Cremata. He pushed for spending nearly all of the city's $7.4 million in CARES Act funding on these direct payments.

CREMATA: This was, in my opinion, the only way we could spend the lion's share of this money - put it in the hands of residents and stimulate our economy. We have to. We have no revenue for 18 months.

STREMPLE: Cremata would know. When he's not being mayor, he's usually down at the dock selling tours to cruise ship passengers. Not this year - Skagway's losses this season are an estimated $160 million, which is why he says the local assembly approved the measure.

CREMATA: So I see this resolution as a life preserver to a lot of people who aren't in a boat. And this is the way that they're going to be able to survive this winter.

STREMPLE: But seen from another angle, it's a good thing tourists aren't pouring into town. Skagway has no hospital, and there's only one ventilator at the local clinic. A COVID-19 outbreak would be a health care disaster. The town hasn't had any cases yet. This season without cruise ships, Cremata says, is an economic disaster.

CREMATA: People say we're all in the same boat, but we haven't had a boat since October of 2019, and we're not going to have a boat until April of 2021.

STREMPLE: Skagway plans to continue the thousand-dollar payments through the end of the year. It has to spend the federal dollars by then. But that leaves Skagway residents without aid or income for four months until the next cruise ship comes in.

For NPR News, I'm Claire Stremple. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.