Win Gruening: Juneau can’t plow the streets, but plows ahead with cultural arts center extravagant spending

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By WIN GRUENING

One would think that after voters nixed a 2019 proposal to give $4.5 million to the Juneau Arts & Humanities Council to subsidize a new cultural arts center (New JACC), the Juneau Assembly would be chastened enough to rethink and revise the whole concept.

Well, they re-thought it.  By combining it with necessary upgrades and modifications to Juneau’s Centennial Hall convention center, the cost of the joint development (now dubbed the Capital Civic Center) has ballooned to an estimated $77 million – almost double what the original combined projects were slated to cost.

To be fair, city officials admit they don’t know what it will really cost.  So, after much hand-wringing, the Assembly approved a $2 million expenditure for a partial design that presumably would determine a firm project cost.

It’s hard to understand.

Somehow the city has been hood-winked into taking responsibility for the New JACC project when it’s been obvious for some time that the plan, as envisioned, is too grandiose to be financially viable.  Proponents cobbled together a skimpy pro-forma reflecting a break-even operation but it had more than a few questionable assumptions.

JACC boosters initially insisted the facility would be privately funded. But after years of fundraising, they failed to raise more than 20% of the proposed cost. Their pleas for more money from the city never garnered enough votes from the Assembly or the voters.

Now, they apparently have engineered a dramatic turnaround.  With the city proposing to own the project and be financially responsible for its operation, the JACC sponsoring organization, the “Partnership,” will no longer need to fundraise and any revenue shortfalls would be covered by Juneau taxpayers.

Given the additional financial risk assumed by the city, why isn’t the Partnership paying for at least half of the $2 million the city committed to the Capital Civic Center?

This may be a terrific deal for the arts in Juneau but it’s not clear that’s true for Juneau’s taxpayers.

The combined project has been touted as a necessary amenity but it was sold on the premise that it would be more efficient than two large standalone projects.  However, it doesn’t appear that any effort has been made to downsize either one – just merely smash them together.

In the process, the two projects are being treated as one but, in reality, the need for each is different.  It is well-established that Centennial Hall needs updating. Little has been done on the facility (aside from the $4.5 million in improvements currently underway) and it’s sadly in need of modernization.  Voters have been willing to go along with those expenditures, until now.  But conflating the need for a renovated Centennial Hall with the proposed need for a brand-new arts and cultural center is, at best, not being honest with tax-paying voters who clearly expressed their unwillingness to financially support the New JACC. 

City officials and supporters have hinted that large grants and, possibly, Federal monies are available to fill the funding gap that is widening daily as inflation and supply chain issues dramatically escalate building costs.  If so, that would help make the project more palatable to all concerned.

But the project cost is only half the calculation.

Why wasn’t an analysis of revenues and expenses undertaken before committing millions to design? The operating costs of this facility will be many times what the combined operating costs were for the two existing buildings and, without that information, financial feasibility remains a question mark.  

Remember, Centennial Hall required an annual $600,000 subsidy before Covid hit.  While Juneau (and Alaska, in general) enjoys a mystique and cachet that many other destinations do not, independent travelers will incur high transportation costs and limited lodging options when visiting Juneau.  Rosy revenue projections for conventions or cultural events that are based on large numbers of visitors from outside Juneau should be viewed with healthy skepticism. 

The only way to gain wide-spread public support is through a financial vetting of the project that reflects no increased subsidies or taxes to pay for it and doesn’t require sacrificing plowed streets in the winter.  

Juneau doesn’t need another snow job.

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.

7 COMMENTS

  1. The CBJ has spent millions on buying up old buildings and renovating them. Millions more on housing for the homeless. Acquiring a building is just the beginning. Remodel, rehab, maintenance, utilities, etc are not planned for. Juneau voters shot down plans for a new JACC but most of us knew the council would sidestep us and build something anyway. Where will the funds come from? Currently they raised commercial property tax rates by 50% (with multiple lawsuits now being filed by property owners). We all know what’s around the bend…more taxes and homeowners ought to brace themselves for spikes in property taxes.

  2. Win, are you serious? You’re worried about $2 million spent on Juneau expenditures funded by Juneau taxpayers, but yet you were all gungho for the state to spend hundreds of millions of dollars in 2018 to build the Lynn Canal Highway. How much was the state budget deficit in 2018 again? Refresh my memory, my dear prophet.

    I’ll refresh everyone else’s:
    “the Lynn Canal Highway remains a viable project” – Win Gruening April 5th, 2018 (Juneau Empire)

    Let’s not forget, not only is the Lynn Canal Highway not a viable project, it would cost the state and Federal government hundreds of millions of dollars, with additional funding in the 10s of millions every year to maintain it.

    No one cares, Win. Your opinion is meaningless. You’re the furthest from a fiscal conservative. You’re just opposed to funding in this case, but you’ll happily spend the state’s dollars on projects that benefit you, regardless of cost or payback. So make your case on the cultural arts, and make it to Juneau residents. No one cares about it on here.

    • It only costs the State of Alaska approximately 10% of road construction costs. The rest is western federal highways funding.

    • Wow. Kind of used both barrels on Old win didn’t you? Perhaps he had it coming. Perhaps he was hoping like most Americans we have short memories or none at all come election time. I’m all for native and cultural programs that enhance they understanding of Alaska’s first occupants.

    • I say pull the plug on Juneau. The capitol should be up in The Valley. Near the hospital would be perfect. Lots of space, between Wasilla and Palmer, and out of reach of Anchorage.

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