Tuesday, September 04, 2007

Alaska's "Capital" Schizophrenia: The Love-Hate Relationship With Juneau

We Alaskans have a schizophrenic attitude towards our state capital in Juneau. We hate it enough to talk about moving it, but apparently we love it too much to actually move it. There have been a number of initiatives proposed to move the capital out of Juneau. Most failed, but one progressed far enough to where we actually designated the city of Willow, 90 minutes north of Anchorage on the Parks Highway (named after former territorial governor George Parks, not the overrated civil rights "diva" Rosa Parks), as the future capital. But we got cold feet and that initiative died of lack of follow-up. Click HERE to read the history of Alaska's capital move initiatives.

Interestingly, not one of the previous initiatives proposed that we move the capital to the most logical place, Anchorage, the economic and demographic center of the state with an state-of-the-art all-weather international airport that has only been completely shut down once in the 16 years I've been here. Would an initiative to move the capital to Anchorage have succeeded where others failed?

While there's no new capital move initiative in the offing, a couple of editorials in two different media outlets highlight the debate quite well. First, an editorial column about the proposed location of the Alaska State Legislature's October special session appeared on September 4th in the Fairbanks Daily News-Miner. The News-Miner wants to see the special session held in Juneau. Here's part of their rationale:

Juneau’s geographic isolation from the rest of the state isn’t ideal. No one, even Juneau residents, can disagree with that. The capital isn’t within easy, affordable reach of most people. But the simple fact of Alaska’s immense land mass means that some people are going to be inconvenienced wherever the Legislature meets. If a special session were held in Fairbanks, for example, residents of the Juneau area would likewise be inconvenienced. And having a session in Fairbanks would do nothing to help the people of the Bristol Bay, the Northwest Arctic Borough or the Seward Peninsula.

Could Fairbanks accommodate a special session on the oil tax? Yes, though the opening week could be a bit difficult since that is the week that more than 3,000 people are expected to be in town for the annual convention of the Alaska Federation of Natives, which is returning to Fairbanks for just the third time in the organization’s history.


What the state should be doing is improving how government proceedings — not only of the legislative branch but also of the executive and judicial branches — are made available to the public electronically. It’s said that we live in an ever-shrinking world, one in which the communications industry is doing wonders to connect people. That same thought needs to be applied to state government in Alaska. Why, for example, must Alaskans rely on the limited, though extraordinary, efforts of a public television station and the city of Juneau to provide television coverage of the Legislature? Why isn’t the state government itself making those proceedings available?

An Alaska in which citizens are better connected to their leaders should be the ultimate goal. And with that as the goal, the continuing angst that some leaders cause the city of Juneau perhaps would fade. Talk of moving the capital might at last cease. Complaints of “capital creep,” when state functions are transferred out of Juneau, could possibly end.

The issue isn't whether or not people will be "inconvenienced"; obviously no solution will eliminate this problem. But moving the capital to a more accessible location would inconvenience FEWER people. And a Fairbanks session would help people in outlying areas since it is cheaper to fly from Barrow to Fairbanks than to Juneau. The point about possible conflict with the AFN Convention is valid; but what the News-Miner ought to be doing is simply advocating that the special session not be held in Fairbanks rather than keeping it in Juneau.

Increasing the "electronic" accessiblity and availability of government is axiomatic and is worth pursuing on its own merits alone, without reference to any other measures. But the tipping point on a capital move was reached long ago; talk of moving the capital will never cease until it is actually done.

And the Anchorage Voice of the Times apparently agrees with that last sentence. While their column doesn't address the proposed special legislative session, they address a related issue: Governor Sarah Palin's refusal to remain at the Official Residence in Juneau while the legislature is adjourned. Supporting a capital move is not a new position for them; the Voice of the Times has advocated a capital move for years. Here's their reasoning:

WE HAVE SAID over and over again, for more years than it's necessary to tally up, that Juneau has outlived its usefulness as a capital city. The truth is, it is the capital in name only. Continued sessions of the Legislature in Juneau — far removed and isolated from the great bulk of the population — simply makes no sense.

The economic heart of the state is in Anchorage and Southcentral Alaska. The continued population growth is in this part of the state, with Wasilla as a good example. Without question, the arts and cultural heart of the state bloom and blossom in Anchorage. The university here [University of Alaska-Anchorage] is the center of higher education growth in Alaska, even though the statewide headquarters of the University of Alaska is anchored in Fairbanks.

Juneau beefs up its defenses and rails against those who point out that its place has passed as the seat of government. But the time has come when its leaders should face reality, and start developing a long-range plan to capitalize on Juneau's strengths to enhance its future as the governmental center for Southeast Alaska, with an economy based on mining, timber, fishing and tourism.

If developed properly, it will find being the capital is no big deal.

And this is wise counsel. Over half of the state's lawmakers live in Anchorage or within a 60-minute drive. Moving the legislature to Anchorage, at the very least, would reduce the housing and transport costs of over half the state's lawmakers to incidental levels only. Airfare for other lawmakers will be reduced - it's cheaper to fly from Bethel or Barrow to Anchorage than it is to fly to Juneau.

And this brings up another point - the capital does not need to be completely removed in one fell swoop. I envision a two-stage process. First, we relocate the legislature to Anchorage. This could actually be done by 2009 at the earliest. Two alternative homes for the lawmakers could be considered. First, there is space available in the Atwood Building downtown (although former lawmaker Andrew Halcro does not consider this an adequate alternative). Second, with the impending relocation of the Air National Guard unit currently at Kulis ANGB to Elmendorf AFB, the vacated facilities at Kulis could be considered.

The second stage - moving the administrative function - could be delayed until much later. First, we would need to decide where in Anchorage to construct a new Governor's Mansion, as well as any other necessary buildings. This is NOT a no-brainer. According to the Municipality of Anchorage (MOA), 90% of the developable land has already been developed. Exploitation of vacant land across the Knik Arm at Point MacKenzie is hindered by the lack of a bridge.

However, the MOA definition of "developable" should not be considered beyond debate. For example, when I was recently driving east on O'Malley through the Lower Hillside, I noticed that Ruth Arcand Park seemed to go on forever. With so much pressure on existing developable land, are we really justified in keeping Ruth Arcand Park so large? With as much greenbelt as Anchorage already has, we could re-designate up to half of Arcand Park for other uses and not miss it. While we should keep as much of our greenbelt as possible, we should not allow greenbelt to hold our city hostage. Unfortunately, Hillside residents tend to be notoriously selfish and parochial about land use.

Juneau residents tend to be nearly as parochial. Although a road linking Juneau to the Outside would help diversify the local economy and prepare the community for an effective transition to a post-capital environment, a majority of Juneau residents continue to illogically and irrationally obstruct construction of such a road. It's true that, while the road would only be about 60 miles long, it does present some environmental challenges, such as factoring in an estimated couple of dozen or so avalanche chutes. However, these challenges are not insurmountable; America has historically been a "can-do" nation. The Luddites down in Juneau are merely playing the "avalanche" card as an excuse to remain insular.

Connecting Juneau to the Outside by road would provide the impetus for a greater economic diversification that would allow the city to not only survive, but actaully thrive in a post-capital environment. Juneau could then play a new role as a powerful and prosperous advocate for a Southeast Alaska that is often neglected and even marginalized. And it would free us to move the capital to a more central location on the road network, Anchorage being the most preferential and logical selection.

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