Win Gruening: Change in capital city leadership brings opportunity



With current and projected turnover in city leadership, Juneau citizens might consider new ways to meet the challenges facing their community.

Understanding how these challenges affect Alaskans’ perception of Juneau as the state capital is important. Juneau is a multi-faceted city shaped by tourism, mining, recreation, and a lively arts and culture community.  But its core identity as Alaska’s capital city is foremost in people’s minds.

Juneau City Manager Rorie Watt recently announced his retirement effective Sept. 30. CBJ Treasurer Angie Flick was recently selected to replace outgoing City Finance Director Jeff Rogers on June 30.  After a nationwide search, Fred Hauser was hired to replace retiring Juneau School District Superintendent Bridget Weiss on July 1.

While I haven’t always agreed with their policy choices, it’s not helpful to critique out-going  holders of these jobs.  Serving in high-visibility leadership positions is rarely easy and usually a thankless job. All deserve credit for their public service and dedication to the city and school district.  

But, anytime leadership changes, there is an opportunity to re-examine best practices, priorities, and goals.

During my 25-plus years as a member of the Alaska Committee, an organization dedicated to improving and enhancing Juneau as Alaska’s Capital City, I have seen a lot of positive changes. But there seems to be a diminishing public awareness of how local actions affect statewide opinions of Juneau as a capital city.

While our economy is finally emerging from a pandemic with schools back in session and the future looks brighter, many challenges remain.

At the top of the list of challenges facing Juneau city leaders will be:

  • making Juneau a more affordable place to live
  • improving student achievement and educational choices in Juneau schools 
  • as a by-product, making Juneau a better and more welcoming capital city.

These challenges deserve equal attention. They are largely not “money” problems. If they were, we would have solved them long ago. 

Affordability and availability of housing is a multi-layered issue. It’s more than just making more land available, subsidizing projects, or hiring a housing director. Bureaucratic processes, over-regulation, restrictive zoning and a “not-in-my-backyard attitude” can stymie even the best of projects.

Property taxes are also having a dramatic impact on housing affordability.  With a 20% increase in Juneau property assessments over several years without a corresponding reduction in the millage rate, property owners and renters have been negatively impacted. Legislators and private employers are struggling to find housing for their staff.  

The Juneau Community Foundation recently purchased and donated to the State a former office building next to the Capitol which will be turned into 33 apartments for legislative housing.  This is just another example of generous donations by the city and other Juneau organizations that have improved the Capitol complex over the years.  However, while this latest gift will be helpful, it will do little to lower the overall cost of living in the community.

There’s no reason affordability, education, and capital city goals cannot be complementary, or even work in tandem.   For example, there is a continuing shortage of workers in Juneau.  School and private sector partnerships can help cultivate employment interests, good work habits, and customer service skills critical to being a good host city.

Student proficiency in math, science, and language arts should remain a primary focus.  But not everyone is cut out for a college degree. Can we better prepare students for our specific local workforce?  Can we partner with the tourism, mining, and retail industries to grow bookkeepers, boat captains, pilots, mining technicians and diesel mechanics?

If educational improvements are only seen through the lens of more funding, conflict will continue. As school populations decline, it’s clearly evident that school building consolidations are necessary and must be considered.

I hope that in the process of interviewing prospective candidates for the superintendent position, our school district clearly articulated its facility and enrollment challenges.  In years past, many legislators chose to bring their families to Juneau and enroll them in our schools during legislative session.  That’s a worthy goal for our school district to consider – a “big picture” capital city perspective. 

Juneau’s cost of living and the quality of our schools have an outsized influence on whether people choose to live here, work here, or stay here.  If they don’t, we suffer economically, employee recruitment issues will increase, and state and federal government offices will be more likely to move.  More significantly, Juneau will be perceived as a poor steward of Alaska’s capital.

Will city leaders accept and promote our capital city’s larger responsibility to all Alaskans and the notion that nothing is “off the table” when considering how best to move forward?

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.

Win Gruening: Juneau spending up, taxes up, population flat


  1. The problems are easy to identify. Juneau is run by hardcore Liberals and we’re witnessing the effects of this style of leadership. Members of our city council have said they want Juneau to be like Seattle. Well, it’s getting there.

    • Jim, you demonstrated the key problem. That is, we tend to see symptoms as “problems” and thereby fail to focus on the true problems. You say, “The problems are easy to identify. Juneau is run by hardcore Liberals… ” Ask yourself, who hired them? The real problem is the majority of voters have become disaffected and discouraged by their local government. They see no hope for change or redemption so they choose to unplug. They don’t even vote anymore. They don’t see that their choice is actually making things worse. That is a core problem needing a remedy.

  2. There is opportunity, yes. But take a hard look at our electorate.

    We have the government we want.

      • Dave: about 60 percent of the eligible voters in Juneau have realized something that hasn’t sunk in with you yet.

        It makes no difference how or even if you vote so why waste time and energy doing it?

        • Bob, you could not be more wrong if you tried. Mr. Hanna is absolutely correct. Our wayward assembly is a result of disaffected voters choosing to unplug and not vote. Not voting does make a difference–things get worse and worse.

    • Not the government we want, we have the government mail-in voting and Ranked Choice tabulating brought us! Those decisions were made by incumbents, not by voters.

      • We voted in this left if center Assembly years and years before RVC was a gleam in anyone’s eye.

        Election after election we slid slightly further left. We did not turn them out.

        We made them repeated incumbents. Therefore, we have given them permission to make these decisions.

  3. Having our legislature meet in Juneau is probably Alaska’s #1 problem. Keep the capital there. Have the legislature meet in Southcentral Alaska.

    • erak: The only thing that moving the legislature to South central will accomplish is that South central will be filled with avowed socialists within five years of the legislatures move.

  4. Win: I was born at St Anns Hospital in 1959 and have lived in Southeast (mostly in Juneau) since then. I seriously doubt ‘new leadership’ will bring any significant changes since it never has in the past. In fact, High taxes, non-availability of property and a burgeoning drug and mental health scene on the streets coupled with a lack of effective law enforcement have caused me to sell everything and leave the area.

  5. Juneau needs new leadership, accordingly I nominate Joe Geldhof and Wayne Coogan for Borough Assembly. How about it Juneau- Douglas?

    • Maybe someone realized that now days college degrees reflect nothing more than an extensive period of ‘leftist’ indoctrination.

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