The sight of not one, but two, large construction cranes rising high above downtown Juneau this year has been exhilarating and encouraging. While a lot of exciting construction and remodeling is underway all around town, these cranes mark two particularly large projects which promise to transform the Capital City for the better. The State Library, Archive & Museum (SLAM) and the Walter Soboleff Center together point toward a promising future awaiting all of us who are fortunate enough to call Juneau home, and will bring people here from around the world.
The SLAM project has certainly been a long time coming. People have been thinking about having to replace the beloved but aging State Museum for decades. Much of the State Museum’s collections not on display due to space limitations are in unsafe storage, threatened by humidity, flooding and other water damage, asbestos, insects, and inadequate heat, light, or protection from fire. The same goes for the State Library and State Archives, which have seen catastrophic leaks over the years. SLAM will bring the three components of the Division of Libraries, Archives & Museums together in one place, safeguarding the treasures they hold, and allowing Alaskans much greater opportunities to access and interact with these artistic and cultural resources.
The first step in making the SLAM dream a reality was acquiring the large parcel of land between the existing facility and the Foodland Shopping Center. Thanks to persistence and advocacy by the Friends of the Alaska State Museum, the State Legislature appropriated $1.5 million in 2002 to buy the land, and in subsequent years has spent $9 million on planning and architectural work. Alaskan voters approved an $18.5 million bond in 2012 to begin construction, and the Governor and Legislature followed with $35 million more allowing work to progress to the current phase. Of a total project price of $101 million, about $38 million is still needed to complete the final phases of the SLAM project under the current contract, the final appropriation for which will hopefully be made in the coming legislative session.
Even without all the funding in place, a significant amount of work has been done. The complex foundation is in, with underground geothermal heating infrastructure and secure, climate-controlled storage space which will help this new facility operate efficiently and economically. Several stories of the new building are built, and each passing week the structure looks grander and more imposing. A Juneau resident can only think with pride about how wonderful it will be to have the SLAM up and running. It is sad, at the same time, to think of the old State Museum going away, a motivation to visit it often between now and its planned closing in the not-too-distant future.
On the other side of Telephone Hill, work on Sealaska Heritage Institute’s Walter Soboleff Center is also proceeding at a pleasing pace. The hole in the ground and later park space created by the unfortunate demise of the Endicott Building in a fire many years ago is at long last being filled by something new and exciting. The indefatigable leader of SHI is Dr. Rosita Worl, who has performed with impressive persistence in creating a vision and lining up the funding necessary for what will be a world-class monument to the living culture and history of the Tlingit and Haida peoples of Southeast Alaska. The Soboleff Center will provide many services and benefits, including as an educational focus point for collaborative work with the University of Alaska Southeast and the Juneau School District. There will also be space for the creation of visual art in the presence of an audience and performing art and event, which will bring Juneau residents and visitors in to use and enjoy the facility.
The positive effect of a beautiful new structure on the Soboleff Center’s site can not be ignored as Juneau continues to spruce up and revivify downtown. Private donations are a key part of the effort to fund fully the budget for the Soboleff Center, and it is easy to contribute to this worthy effort at SHI’s website, http://sealaskaheritagecenter.com. It is fitting that as the regional hub of Southeast, as well as Alaska’s Capital City, Juneau will have an Alaska Native cultural center on a par with others across the Last Frontier.
As work rebuilding the State Capitol nears completion, we in Juneau can look forward to welcoming our friends in the State Legislature back for the 2014 assured that our town is getting better every day.