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Blitz of tourists don't materialize in Whittier

Posted: Thursday, September 14, 2000

ANCHORAGE (AP) -- The Prince William Sound community of Whittier wasn't overwhelmed with tourists this summer, as city officials had feared.

Officials say far fewer motorists than expected made the trip through the new Anton Anderson Memorial Tunnel, which opened in June.

And those who made the trip through the 2.5-mile, combined road-rail tunnel didn't cause much traffic congestion, confusion or mischief in Whittier.

The relative lack of interest in visiting Whittier has city and state officials wondering what can be done to draw more people to Alaska's newest highway town.

On average, about 800 vehicles a day made trips through the tunnel from June until the end of August, according to tunnel manager Greg Hall. That adds up to roughly 2,600 people each day, or about 260,000 people for the summer tourist season.

As the project was planned, officials estimated that 430,000 to a whopping 1.2 million people would visit annually. Just days before the tunnel opened, 485,000 to 650,000 were expected.

''We are missing about a million people,'' said Arnie Arneson, Whittier's mayor.

The summer visitors did make an impact on this town of 300 or so. Hall said some Whittier business people complained about being so busy they barely had time to talk to their customers.

Charlene Arneson, Whittier's harbor master, said the harbor was busier than ever, dealing with hundreds of new boaters and fishermen.

The busiest businesses were restaurants, said Matt Rowley, Whittier's city manager.

Babs Reynolds, who owns a hamburger joint called Hobo Bay Trading Co., said business was good, but the tunnel opening meant she traded old customers for new ones.

In years past, she said, boat owners would stop in on Sundays while waiting for the train. Now she gets mostly tourists.

''It's become a big cul de sac,'' she said. ''Ninety percent of the people that come in the tunnel, just turn around and go right back.''

This worries those who hope the tunnel will spur the local economy, especially because passage through the tunnel was free this summer. Come April a toll of about $15 per vehicle will be imposed.

''The toll and cost of parking combined is a worry,'' said Marilynn Heddell, owner and operator of Honey Charters in Whittier. ''Are people going to be curious enough to pay the toll?''

Rowley said he hopes the city council and local businesses will come together this winter to figure out how to attract visitors and keep them in town.

Tunnel manager Hall is also looking to increase the traffic.

''For this project to truly succeed, we need to promote Whittier,'' he said. ''This is the longest highway tunnel in North America and there is not one T-shirt, not one bumper sticker and not one patch for sale.''



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