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New Juneau capitol is a realistic goal

Posted: Sunday, February 27, 2005

Vantage Point By Robert Hale, publisher of the Juneau Empire.

On Feb. 18, a day after Juneau's Capitol Planning Commission unveiled the four designs it is considering for a new capitol to sit atop downtown's Telephone Hill, attendees at a Juneau Convention and Visitors Bureau luncheon couldn't believe the concepts they'd seen on the front page of that day's Juneau Empire. They were nothing like what they'd expected.

More than a week later, I've not spoken with anyone who saw in the four designs a structure that would be fitting and proper, architecturally speaking, as a new capitol. Some of them think such "radical" designs set Juneau apart even more from the rest of Alaska and accentuates the town's liberalism and free-spirit thinking. Surely, many have said, there exists a fifth or a sixth capitol rendering that is more mainstream, more palatable.

There are those, however, who feel they could enthusiastically embrace any one of the designs, and they're proud that such leading-edge concepts by big-name architects are being considered.

The designs of the four finalists - each of them world-class firms - are edgy and futuristic. They're eye-catching and they look nothing like the typical rotunda-style capitol buildings you'd find in at least several other states. Because of that, many Juneauites and others around the state think we've lost our minds in considering structures that look much more like performing arts centers than they do houses of government.

Some of that sentiment rings true in the Alaska Legislature, the body that must give a new capitol building its stamp of approval, and that's where things are getting a little thorny. Perhaps the strongest indication of that is the fact that no lawmakers attended the unveiling of the capitol drawings at the Baronof Hotel on Feb. 17. Since then some legislators have said the project just isn't doable and others have said a new capitol is needed, but perhaps not in Juneau.

And, some members of the Alaska State Chamber of Commerce, while meeting in Juneau last week, expressed their concerns about the cost and the design of a new capitol.

The controversy and the disagreement over a new capitol and Juneau's status as the capital city may be as intense now as ever before. Mayor Bruce Botelho launched the capitol design contest last year and has since toured the state in an attempt to sell other communities - Anchorage and Fairbanks most notably - on his vision. Botelho envisions Fairbanks as being the state's educational center, Anchorage its economic center and Juneau its political center.

We'll know Tuesday at noon which firm has been chosen for the capitol project, but it may be a while before we know how successful Botelho's sales efforts have been. Botelho's hope is to be able to dedicate the building by 2009 in time to mark the state's 50th anniversary. That means things will have to progress fairly quickly this year and next within the Legislature. It'd be great to know by the end of this legislative session how supportive most lawmakers are likely to be of the new capitol building, but that may be a stretch.

I think the capitol is ultimately doable. I think it's doable in Juneau and I think it's doable by 2009. If the plan works out that way, this community's view of a road to the north could shift from being largely split to overwhelmingly supportive.

• Robert Hale is publisher of the Juneau Empire and may be reached at robert.hale@juneauempire.com



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