Alaska editorial: Juneau should pay for new state capitol

Posted: Tuesday, March 15, 2005

It's time to put up or shut up. If Juneau wants to cement its role as Alaska's capital with a new capitol building, Juneau should pay for it.

The current Capitol Building is more than 70 years old. It's been home to a rich history. But it's also old, dull and inadequate. The question is what to build for a new capitol - and, since Juneau raised the question, where to build it. Let's settle the question of capitol and capital for a long time. Let's build something beautiful that Alaskans will claim as their own.

Juneau's plan now is to sell bonds to build a $100 million capitol, then lease it to the state for about $6.5 million a year for 30 years, at which time the state would own the building.

The reality is that plan is going nowhere, politically or otherwise. Juneau's design competition for the new capitol building gave us dazzling designs that pushed the envelope - but many Alaskans seem to feel no envelope would have them. A design panel chose the winner, but the choice is overshadowed, even overwhelmed, by the growing conviction that the Legislature isn't going to spend a dime of the state's money for a stronger capital anchor in Juneau. Unless there's some underlying trend in public and legislative opinion that nobody has been able to detect, Juneau's current efforts are an exercise in futility.

It's fair for Juneau residents and businesses to pick up the tab for that new building. The Southeast city enjoys many benefits from having the state headquartered there. Its healthy economy depends largely on state government. But capital status is not a birthright in perpetuity; it's a privilege. How much is Juneau willing to invest in keeping that privilege?

So far, Juneau has offered Alaskans designs they don't particularly like and the chance to pay for them. Even with the advantage "possession is nine-tenths of the law," that won't work, because any mention of a new capitol brings with it mention of a new capital. And Juneau faces the cold fact that if we were starting afresh in 2005, few Alaskans north of Yakutat would put the capital in Juneau or anywhere else in Southeast. No slam on the Panhandle, which surely qualifies as God's country; it's just that most Alaskans don't live there and don't find it easy to get there.

But almost a century of capital status - and a lot of public and private investment in that - is worth at least the right of first refusal. Let's give our neighbors in the capital city the chance to show the rest of Alaska what they can build. If Juneau is willing to invest in a new capitol for all Alaskans, let that settle the capital move question for the next several generations.

And if Juneau says no, let others have a chance to put up or shut up. Let any other reasonable location in the state make an offer under these basic terms: Can you give the state a better deal than Juneau can? If something convincing comes forward, let's give it real consideration. If not - not even in concept - then that too could settle the question for generations.

Juneau, like it or not, has reopened the capital move question by asking the rest of the state to cover the costs of the capitol and in effect keeping the state capital in Juneau for the foreseeable future. Juneau gets first shot at the answer. But if that answer fails to satisfy, the question should go statewide.

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