By WIN GRUENING
The dust has finally settled on Juneau’s recent municipal election and there’s an expectation that the Assembly will start conducting its business more transparently and begin re-examining its priorities.
With the new Juneau city hall initiative suffering its second electoral setback in two years, it’s time to go back to the drawing board. Some project proponents blame its defeat on a public misunderstanding of the ostensible benefits advanced by city leaders, but that excuse doesn’t hold water. Voters evaluated more than enough information to make their decision on the project merits.
Even after the Assembly authorized $16 million in up-front funding and expended $50,000, to “educate” voters, The city hall initiative received fewer “Yes” votes and failed by a larger margin than in the 2022 election.
It was a doomed effort from the start. It’s past time to re-think the cost, location, and need for a facility of this size.
The public rebuke of the new city hall should signal to the Juneau Assembly that their other mega-project priority, an expanded arts and culture center, now combined with a revamp of Centennial Hall and dubbed the Capital Civic Center, may be in trouble. $17 million has been appropriated to date even though no one knows the final cost or the extent of the required annual subsidy. Several years ago the price tag was estimated at $75 million. Who knows how much more it will cost now?
It’s interesting to note that while Capital Civic Center boosters maintain that such a grand facility is needed, a recent weekend in Juneau tells a different story. Three very large downtown public events were held simultaneously on a Saturday night at Centennial Hall, Juneau Arts & Culture Center, and at the State Library and Museum.
While those three major events were happening, Juneau’s Crystal Saloon was entertaining yet another audience…and in the Valley, Juneau’s Moose Lodge and Women of the Moose held a fundraiser auction.
Juneau certainly seems to have facilities that can host large, medium and small events.
Even more telling is the trend of cultural performances being staged in smaller Juneau neighborhood venues instead of larger auditoriums.
In November, Theater Alaska is scheduling an Ibsen production in eleven different venues around the city. Only one of those is taking place in the Juneau Arts and Culture Center. Comparable outdoor performances were enjoyed earlier this summer at parks in the Mendenhall Valley, downtown and Douglas during the Alaska Theater Festival.
According to event organizers, their main focus is to increase accessibility and bring “professional theater and professional artists closer to the community.” A total of 2,259 people attended similar festival shows last year.
Acknowledging that traditional approaches may no longer be useful in contemplating building uses, whether for city employees or theater-goers, requires a complete mind-shift by our city leaders.
Nevertheless, some will interpret the retention of sitting assembly members and the election of the two new members as quasi-approval of these projects and a continuation of business as usual.
That would be a mistake.
The power of incumbency, the strength of campaigns, and the sheer number of candidates in the Areawide race played a major role in this election and the results did not truly reflect the amount of public dissatisfaction with a whole host of past and current Assembly actions. Juneau residents have continued to voice their frustration over a number of concerns:
- Unwarranted, exorbitant increases in property taxes
- Millions of tax dollars appropriated for projects not approved by the public
- Non-disclosure of emails constituting public testimony
- New city manager selection held almost entirely in secret
- Continuation of expensive vote-by-mail elections with little benefit
Over the past several years, Juneau city leaders have promoted projects and initiatives without fully vetting them with the public. Appropriating millions of dollars for buildings or projects like vote-by-mail without a clear idea of cost or impacts is not a recipe for gaining public trust in government.
Continuing business as usual will only result in more unnecessary taxes and impacts that will further burden Juneau working families and aging population. JEDC’s 2023 Economic Indicators revealed for the first time in Juneau history, our over-60 citizens outnumber our under-20 young people. This isn’t a positive trend.
Resolving these issues will require creative, perhaps unconventional, thinking but that’s what is needed now, more than ever.
After retiring as the senior vice president in charge of business banking for Key Bank in Alaska, Win Gruening became a regular opinion page columnist for the Juneau Empire. He was born and raised in Juneau and graduated from the U.S. Air Force Academy in 1970. He is involved in various local and statewide organizations.