A cold reception

Legislature not wowed by Juneau's capitol project

Posted: Sunday, February 20, 2005

When Juneau's Capitol Planning Commission revealed four architecture teams' visions for an Alaska state capitol, the capitol competition's Web site became clogged with inquisitive traffic.

The first viewing, at the Baranof Hotel on Thursday, attracted a whole room of design professionals and curious citizens.

But the Legislature, which will determine the new capitol's fate, has remained indifferent if not hostile.

"The project is not doable politically," said Anchorage Republican Rep. Norm Rokeberg.

Although the Baranof is only a few blocks away from the current Capitol, no state legislators showed up at the press conference to see the four concepts.

Since January 2004, Juneau Mayor Bruce Botelho has spearheaded the commission to build a new capitol. The commission held a design contest that has entered the final stage. A nine-member jury will select a winner March 1 from the four final design teams.

Botelho wants to dedicate the building by 2009 to mark the state's 50th anniversary.

For the capitol to become a reality, Botelho would need the Legislature's approval of a 30-year lease for the $100 million project. The state would pay about $6.5 million a year. Botelho x said he has considered dipping into the Amerada Hess Oil Settlement fund to pay for the building.

Each year, the state receives about $30 million from a settlement with oil companies. Gov. Frank Murkowski has proposed using the money to fund a $340 million bond package, including road upgrades and construction for Anchorage, Fairbanks and other areas of the state.

Murkowski said Juneau isn't the only community with a stake in how those funds are spent: "All parts of the state have an interest in (it)," he said.

The legislators who have responded to Botelho's proposal are those who either oppose the project or don't want the capitol to be in Juneau.

Rokeberg submitted a bill seeking a statewide competition to locate a new legislative hall. One string attached is that the willing bidder has to pay for the construction. "It gives everybody a fair chance and it doesn't cost the Legislature anything," he said.

Rep. Bill Stoltze, R-Chugiak, and Rep. Carl Gatto, R-Palmer, proposed bills that would require a statewide election to approve the costs of building a new capitol or legislative hall in Juneau.

"My bill is not a capital-move bill," Stoltze said. "But the mayor has red-flagged an issue that is never dead but had quieted down. My constituents have told me ... don't let them build the capitol unless it is in the North."

Stoltze called Botelho's statewide tour of the competition a "road show."

Whether to keep the capital in Juneau is a controversy as old as the state. Initiatives to move the capital have occurred five times, the latest in 2002, when two-thirds of Alaskans voted against moving legislative sessions to the Matanuska-Susitna Borough.

Although Botelho has been working closely with Murkowski chief of staff Jim Clark - a Juneau resident actively engaged in keeping the capital in Juneau - the governor has taken a wait-and-see attitude.

Murkowski said the city has not provided the state any cost estimates for a new capitol and he'll have to evaluate whether he can support the proposal.

But, he said Thursday of the existing Capitol, "The fact is, this is not an adequate workplace."

Becky Hultberg, Murkowski's spokeswoman, said the governor has been following the progress of the Capitol Planning Commission. "He will evaluate the entire proposal when it is presented to him," Hultberg said.

Botelho said he understands his efforts to build a new capitol have rekindled the old debate of a capital move. But he said he also knows that once a new capitol is built, Juneau's status as the seat of the state will be secured.

Assembly member Merrill Sanford said the competition shows Juneau's continuous commitment to improving Alaska's capital.

"That commitment goes back to the early part of the 20th century, when Juneau residents scraped together the funds needed to buy the land on which the current Capitol now stands," said Merrill, also a member of the Capitol Planning Commission. "Twenty years ago, Juneau helped fund the purchase of Telephone Hill for the purpose of building a capitol there someday."

Sanford said Juneau has spent more than $2 million to fund various initiatives to improve access, including the "Gavel to Gavel" television broadcast of legislative sessions, expanding airport facilities and sponsoring the constituent airfare program.

House Majority Leader John Coghill of North Pole acknowledges Juneau's efforts but said he doesn't think Juneau, as a capital, represents the rest of the state.

"Juneau is much more liberal," Coghill said. "That's a huge negative."

But Coghill said his constituents wouldn't like Anchorage to be the capital, either. "Anchorage is a huge vacuum wind," he said.

Anchorage Democratic Rep. Ethan Berkowitz said a turf battle is the only one reason Juneau remains the capital.

"The political reality is that none of the dogs would let go," Berkowitz said. "No one can agree on where to move it."

Berkowitz said he appreciates the Juneau Capitol Planning Commission holding the competition, though.

"What I appreciate most about the competition is that I hope it will make people care about what's going on in the building and make people in the building behave better," he said.

• I-Chun Che can be reached at ichun.che@juneauempire.com.

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