Concerns over Juneau's downtown atmosphere has caught the attention of community business leaders who say a city wide effort is needed to make it feel more welcoming to locals and tourists alike.
Concerns range from crime and substance abuse to tourism and economics, raising questions as to what the future holds for the downtown area.
A 'Festive Marketplace'?
"The history of downtown Juneau is in many ways a history of downtowns throughout America," said Larry Spencer, president of the Downtown Business Association. "They were viable, then came the era of the malls in the 60s and then came the era of the big box stores in the 80s."
The vibrant downtowns that remain across the country are generally either university towns or communities that have transitioned to "festive marketplaces," he said. The summer tourism season resembles a festive marketplace, as do events like First Friday during the winter, Spender said, adding that Juneau lacks the population to create such an atmosphere year-round.
"Whenever we move in the direction of a festive marketplace, the citizens of Juneau respond and come downtown in numbers and that's part has been successful," he said.
Spender said it's "those late afternoons in between" events that has him worried, and he's not the only one.
The Juneau Chamber of Commerce and the Juneau Convention and Visitors Bureau board of directors have scheduled a meeting in early March to see what the two organizations can do to help alleviate some of the concerns that downtown Juneau might be degrading.
"We'd like to be able to have everybody take a little bit more pride in our downtown area," Chamber of Commerce CEO Cathie Roemmich said. "I think we just all need to work together to see what we can do to help our downtown be a better place."
A hotbed of crime?
Some business owners say the appearance of escalating crime is keeping people away. Reports of assault, disorderly conduct and vehicles being rifled appear regularly in the police blotter, and several businesses in the area have been burglarized in recent months.
Art Sutch, owner of Art Sutch Photo and Digital on Seward Street, says an increase in downtown crime and lack of intervention by the city has contributed to his shop being broken into several times. It was most recently broken into last month and about $11,000 worth of merchandise was stolen.
"I think (the Assembly is) trying not to acknowledge it because once they do they have to deal with it," he said, acknowledging that " ... police are doing a good job."
But criminal activity is actually no more significant now than it has been in the recent past, according to Juneau Police Chief Greg Browning.
"We did a little statistical analysis of the crime patterns downtown, separated them out from the Valley, and there really wasn't any long-term significant crime increase," he said.
Browning recently met with several business owners, including Sutch, and discussed the police department's role and how it operates downtown. He suggested the owners come up with a type of Neighborhood Watch program for their businesses and recommended surveillance cameras, proper locks and alarm systems as further deterrents.
"Anything that the business community can come up with, we're willing to listen," Browning said. "I think the downtown area is really the jewel of the city and it's what brings the tourists in, and we need to do everything that we can to make sure it's as attractive as possible."
An identity shift?
Even still, Sutch says the downtown business climate seems to be at its lowest point since he started his business 19 years ago.
"We had shops that were open," he said. "We had diverse shops. Now it's kind of gone to vacant buildings, closed up (seasonal tourism) shops and a few local businesses that are struggling to stay open."
Assembly member Randy Wanamaker said the downtown area has just evolved over the years.
"My view is that the downtown area has shifted through the years," he said. "For instance, little grocery stores ... are gone now and they have been replaced by more tourism-related businesses."
However, the Assembly is aware of the perception that crime is increasing downtown, Wanamaker said.
"The Assembly is mindful of it," he said. "We ask questions such as, 'Do we have enough officers? Do we need to increase it?' The chief believes, given all the budget considerations, that we have an adequate police force. (The police department has) just got to work with the shop owners to make sure that they take adequate measures."
Smoking ban to blame?
Spencer believes the business climate downtown was harmed by the adoption of the city smoking ban in 2008 that now forces smokers to light up outside on public sidewalks.
"There has been a deterioration in the perception of downtown since the smoking ban went into effect," he said. "And that was a man-made catastrophe - an Assembly-made catastrophe. I think it's harmed public perception of downtown."
It has caused more loiterers on the sidewalks at all hours of the day and made some people wary of spending time downtown because it feels less safe, Spencer said.
Wanamaker said it's unlikely the Assembly would reverse its decision on the smoking ban, however.
"The vast majority of people approve of the smoking ordinance and I don't think the Assembly is prepared to revisit it," he said. "From the information that we get, it's working more than people think it is. The Assembly doesn't seem to be interested in revisiting that issue because there doesn't appear to be any real need to."
Spencer said there are still a lot of great businesses that are operating downtown and the atmosphere is still far more viable and respectable than it was 25 years ago.
"There are clusters of success," he said.
Roemmich said improving downtown Juneau's image will take a community effort.
"We've all talked about it and talked about it and talked about it. The changes are all happening very slowly," she said. "I just think if we all group together, maybe we can see a brighter future for the people that do live and ... work downtown."
Contact reporter Eric Morrison at 523-2269 or firstname.lastname@example.org.
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