Culture center planned to fill 'pit'

Tribal Assembly must first approve use of trust fund money

Posted: Sunday, March 28, 2010

The Central Council of Tlingit and Haida Indian Tribes of Alaska has got big plans for the hole in downtown.

Courtesy Illustration
Courtesy Illustration

Though specifics may change, those plans are currently five stories tall and call for a cultural, education and tourism center that could house a college, restaurant, living quarters, a theater and more. The council is hoping to locate the center at 213 Front Street, the location frequently referred to as the downtown "pit." The building on the property burned down in 2004.

Central Council President Bill Martin said plans for a cultural center and a tribal college have long been in the works, though it's only recently they were pinned to a specific location.

"The location is really hard to beat," he said. "It's perfect."

The property is valued at $800,000. The Executive Committee of the Central Council unanimously approved the use of the council's trust fund money for the property purchase last week. Any use of trust fund money must first be approved by the Tribal Assembly, however, which meets April 21-24.

The council does have approval to engage in preliminary talks, to appraise the property and to do due diligence, Martin said.

In the meantime, the council has also sent out preliminary plans to tribal members. The first floor is drafted to hold a restaurant, gift shop, lobby and coffee shop. The second floor theater could host dance performances, classes and storytelling, with cultural artists' shops and Native craft tables as well. The third floor is drafted to be home to three classrooms, two of which would be long-distance, and several offices. The fourth and fifth floors would be housing or offices, and the roof would have a salmon bake area, tables and offer views of the Gastineau Channel, Mt. Roberts and Mt. Juneau.

The college would focus on language and cultural classes, Martin said.

Martin said especially in his generation, many people's parents and grandparents turned away from Native culture and language in an effort to educate their children under the Western model.

"We're trying to give back what they gave up," he said.

Living spaces in the building would be for students, for people renting efficiencies, or to be used as a bed and breakfast. The council is partnering with Tlingit Haida Regional Housing Authority on the fourth and fifth floors, Martin said.

Though several people, including Deputy Mayor Randy Wanamaker, have said Sealaska expressed interest in the same property, Sealaska Director of Corporate Communications Todd Antioquia declined to comment on the pit, saying the corporation doesn't comment on transactions unless they are finalized or close to it. He said Sealaska Heritage Institute is seeking funding for an archival center, but its location is yet to be determined.

He also stressed that Sealaska "absolutely" supports Tlingit and Haida in its effort.

"If anything, Sealaska and Sealaska Heritage Institute believe there can never be enough Native presence in any effort to promote our cultures," he said. "We're excited for them."

Though Sealaska doesn't have specific plans to partner on this property, Antioquia said the two organizations' goals are common, and "any time we can unify, it definitely benefits our people."

The total estimated costs for the center are between $15 million and $16 million, Martin said. The council is seeking federal funding and private funding, but most would-be donors first want to know that the council has secured the land.

"That's why it's important to try and secure it as fast as we can," he said.

City Attorney John Hartle said the city is planning on holding off on its proposed suit against the current property owners, leery of impeding the sale. The city had planned to file for at least $100,000 for damage to streets and sidewalks caused by a lack of lateral support.

Martin said the city's suit could impede the sale if it ends up adding $100,000 to the estimated $800,000 purchase price.

He added, however, that the council would be responsible for shoring up and fixing the sidewalks if it bought the property, and could negotiate with the city to work out a long-term repayment of the costs to fix it.

• Contact reporter Mary Catharine Martin at 523-2276 or

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