Just a few days ago, the Sheffield Ballroom throbbed with the sound of drums as well more than a thousand people, most dressed in priceless regalia and singing a welcoming song in Tlingit, crowded into Centennial Hall for the biennial Celebration of Southeast Alaska’s indigenous cultures. Witnessing the Grand Entrance, I took great pride that my hometown of Juneau could host such an amazing event.
No other building in Southeast Alaska is large enough to accommodate the number of performers and attendees who came from throughout region and elsewhere to attend Celebration. The same is true for many of the 350 events held at the hall over the last year, including the Taj Mahal concert that kicked off Juneau Jazz & Classics, the Alaska Folk Festival, the banquet and auction held by the Friends of the NRA, the Wearable Arts Extravaganza and the Alaska-Juneau Public Market, to name but a few. But after 30 years of continuous use, the Juneau Centennial Hall and Convention Center is in serious need of upgrades and improvements.
Imagine being involved in an event such as the Celebration, and having to abandon the building due to a power failure; or a wedding or a memorial service, only to have the sound system go silent. Or attending a legislative reception when pipes burst, drenching everyone.
The electrical system, never adequate to handle the demands of a large event, is something I grapple with annually. The kitchen’s freezer and walk-in cooler are inefficient and failure-prone. The lighting? Never a strong point. The women’s restroom is about half the size of the current standard for a building of this type. And the public address system is simply not up to the task of providing clearly heard instructions throughout the building, an important consideration since Centennial Hall is designated as the community’s emergency shelter.
The aesthetics — carpeting, wall paper, colors — these are in the eyes of the beholder, but it is getting increasingly difficult to hide the tattered condition of this highly visible décor.
We may be the state’s third largest city, but Centennial Hall is much further behind compared to other facilities in Alaska. According to the Juneau Convention and Visitors Bureau, we are losing favor with meeting groups that are scheduling their events in newer or remodeled facilities that do not have the deficiencies of Centennial Hall.
Concern about the facility became so acute recently that an organization came together almost spontaneously. The primary purpose of the “Centennial Hall Users Group” is to advocate on behalf of the building. The group is presently composed of Abby’s Kitchen, Alaska Folk Festival, Alaska-Juneau Public Market, Breeze-In Catering, Glacier Valley Rotary Club, Creativation Events, Cycle Alaska, Juneau Arts & Humanities, Juneau Convention and Visitors Bureau, Juneau Economic Development Council, Juneau Jazz & Classics, Red Dog Saloon Catering and Southeast Conference.
Recently, I was given the opportunity to represent our group and speak on behalf of Centennial Hall before the CBJ Assembly, meeting as the Finance Committee. The Assembly convened to hear testimony by city staff and members of the community supporting project requests for funding through the 1 percent of our sales tax available for such purposes. At best, the Assembly might be able to approve half the requested amounts. I don’t envy them this task as every project mentioned deserves funding.
But of all these worthy projects, it is Centennial Hall that contributes most to the community’s sales tax revenues and the most spin-off benefits for local businesses. Of all the facilities in the Juneau Borough, it is the most universally used.
This building is too important to our community to defer maintenance any longer. We need to reinvest now and put the “shine” back into the facility, because it is the “face” of Juneau for both the region and the state.
The Assembly will make the decision about how to allocate the 1 percent funds on June 27. Let them know that you support Centennial Hall.
• Metcalfe is a writer and publisher who, with his wife Sandy, also produces the Thanksgiving-weekend Alaska-Juneau Public Market, staged annually at Centennial Hall since it opened in 1983, as well as the recently added SE Alaska Sports and Recreation Show every March.