Former governor keeps going strong

Sheffield tackles career after career

Posted: Monday, March 13, 2006

ANCHORAGE, Alaska - Former Gov. Bill Sheffield has a lot he wants to see get done before he finally retires. He's working on a project to improve the Ship Creek dock area that will add trails and community gathering places to a spot that is now drab and aged.

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There's also hundreds of millions of dollars in work he'll oversee at the Port of Anchorage, where he's the director, and at the Alaska Railroad Corp., where he serves as the board chair.

"I'd also like to see Anchorage have a new sports complex, so we could see games inside, with a retractable roof," he said. "I'd like to see the railroad go to the Bush to haul our zinc and coal. That'll keep me busy when I leave the port.

"But I gotta hang around here a while yet. I've got to get dirt moving and make sure the money is there."

The 77-year-old Sheffield has spent most of his days trying to make life better for both himself and other Alaskans, whether it be through developing a chain of hotels, running the state or building a legacy of transportation infrastructure.

Born in Spokane, Wash., in 1928, Sheffield grew up during the Depression.

"(The Depression) instilled into me to worry about tomorrow, to save for tomorrow," he said. "When you were born in that era, you never change."

After he graduated high school in 1946, Sheffield tried out a number of careers, eventually hawking appliances across Alaska for Sears. Then he decided to go into the hotel business.

Sheffield Hotels

He'd already been dabbling in the business since late 1957, when he and roommate Brad Phillips - now known for his glacier cruise business - partnered to lease a 13-unit apartment complex in downtown Anchorage. The apartments expanded into an inn, the Red Ram.

Sheffield bought out his partners in the early 1960s. He worked hard during those early years to make it successful, he said, serving as bartender, housekeeper and desk manager.

He continued to expand, becoming a partner in the Baronoff Hotel in Juneau and opening up Sheffield Hotels in Whitehorse, Kodiak, Bethel and other communities in Alaska and in the Yukon Territory.

The governor

Sheffield grew up on dinner table political discussions, which instilled in him a desire to get into public service. Sheffield threw in his name for the 1981 election, running against his buddy, Tom Fink, who later became the Anchorage mayor. He won the general election by 18,000 votes, sweeping the Bush and Southeast Alaska.

A Democrat, Sheffield campaigned against a capital move, and supported Alaska Native lands claims, resource development and women's rights.

During the 1970s and '80s, Alaska was swimming in oil wealth. Sheffield touted restraint. His administration cut $1 billion in two years from the state budget.

As Sheffield's term was closing, oil prices went from $28 a barrel in the peak years to $8 a barrel by 1986. The state's economy collapsed.

"Cutting the budget was a tough thing to do, but it was the right thing to do," Sheffield said. "That's why I got fired. But I was supposed to be a leader."

During his term, Sheffield spearheaded proposals that would eventually lead to some of the state's most profitable ventures. He led the way for permitting the Red Dog mine, and he finagled the purchase of the Alaska Railroad.

Sheffield's term was at times contentious, most notably due to a lease deal in Fairbanks. The governor was accused of favoring a political donor in a plan to lease a building that would house state offices. An investigation found no fault with Sheffield.

Still, his proudest moment in life was the time he spent in office.

"Every day, you can make someone's life better," he said. "There are a lot of bad things, too, but you can help people."

Retirement years

After he left office, Sheffield was tired. In 1987, he sold his hotels to Holland America. But retirement didn't last long. He still sat on boards. He ran an environmental company for a year while it was in bankruptcy.

In 1995, then-Gov. Tony Knowles appointed Sheffield to the Alaska Railroad board of directors. He was elected chair during his first meeting. Two years later, became president of the organization, a position he held until 2001.

In 2001, George Wuerch, who was the Mayor of Anchorage, asked Sheffield to serve as the interim director at the Port of Anchorage, a position he's held since.

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