Empire Editorial: AFN: Could we handle it? Would we want to?

Celebration, put on by Sealaska Heritage Institute, is one of our favorite events in Southeast Alaska, and it’s an honor to host it in Juneau every two years, welcoming Tlingit, Haida and Tsimshian tribal members from around Southeast. It only makes sense that we would love to host an event like the Alaska Federation of Natives convention — but we can’t.


The annual AFN convention regularly draws crowds of 4,000 to 5,000 to shape policy and share culture, from our hubs to the farthest reaches of our state, Barrow to Metlakatla, the Aleutian Island chain to our border with Canada. The convention is alternately held in Anchorage and Fairbanks — it’s in Fairbanks this year Oct. 24-26. But having AFN in Juneau would increase access for tribal members in Southeast, who are very politically active in Alaska, and boost more than our cultural capital — a convention of that size would bring in potentially millions of dollars. Visitors from villages come for the convention, but also to do some necessary shopping. Unfortunately, we don’t yet have the infrastructure for an event this big.

Steve Pfister, facilities manager with the Centennial Hall Convention Center offered a handful of maximum head count numbers for the venue, depending on the format of the event, but none of them came anywhere near 4,000, let alone 5,000. The Juneau Arts & Culture Center now regularly takes on overflow from Centennial Hall events, but adding the JACC main hall’s additional 4,403 square feet to the Centennial Hall ballroom’s 12,000 square feet still won’t serve such a large number of people. Nancy DeCherney, executive director of the Juneau Arts & Humanities Council, anticipates around four to five years of fundraising toward the proposed Juneau Performing Arts & Culture Center, but that won’t have the wide open spaces a convention would require, nor would it likely provide enough space to take the overflow from Centennial Hall. DeCherney suggested that between the future State Library, Archives and Museum building, the future Walter Soboleff Center, the future Performing Arts & Culture Center and Centennial Hall we could handle the AFN attendees — as long as they don’t want to be all in one place at one time.

But they do, that’s what AFN is all about.

The ideal venue for hosting AFN would be a facility comparable to the Carlson Center in Fairbanks, which can support more than 6,000 attendees and where AFN will be held this year, or Anchorage’s Dena’ina Center, the state’s largest convention center.

With a population steadily around 30,000 in Juneau, can we support a venue meant to cater to crowds nearly a fifth the size of our year-round population?

It’s not just about having the space for the events, though. DeCherney said beds would be her biggest worry if Juneau were to host an event like AFN, noting a regional event like Gold Medal puts a strain on that resource; Liz Perry of the Juneau Convention and Visitors Bureau said Juneau offers 1000 beds. Additionally, do we have the transportation infrastructure to fly or ferry in an additional 4,000 or 5,000 people within a reasonable time frame? Do we have have a service industry capable of catering to an event serving 4,000 or 5,000? To host AFN would take long-term strategic planning from Juneau’s leadership, and we, as a community, would have to decide if we want all of this.

Sure, we could host AFN comfortably, but how would we utilize a facility of this magnitude on a regular basis?

Pfister set up Centennial Hall for a concert for the band Hinder in 2011, standing room only, and he said about 900 attended, just more than half the proposed maximum for that set-up. The popular Arlo Guthrie concert in May sat 1,232. Would Juneau be able to attract the big-name acts Fairbanks and Anchorage get, like Snoop Dogg (2010) or Cherry Poppin’ Daddies (coming in 2014), or would the cost of travel be prohibitive despite having the larger venue? Would Juneau offer a large enough audience for acts like Huey Lewis and the News, playing Anchorage in November?

Would we attract statewide conventions or conferences? How about regional?

Perry said that’s a hard question, suggesting that with heavy marketing over the course of five or six years, Juneau could start attracting conventions of that size, but addressing that just brings up more questions. Where would we build a convention center that large? Would it pay for itself? Would we be able to afford the upkeep?

We could build it — provide the venue and the infrastructure — but would they come?


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