Empire Editorial: A wise contribution to state government

Posted: Sunday, April 09, 2006

With the debate over whether to build a new capitol temporarily quieted, Juneau city leaders have fallen back on a plan that most people can back. They have decided to do what they can to make the city a better partner with the state government on which it relies, and to do so almost without asking for a dime in return.

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The city seeks $1 from the state in return for its proposed favor of buying the Scottish Rite Temple - a landmark stucco edifice across the street from the Capitol - and offering it as a legislative and/or gubernatorial annex.

This is a strategy that shows the city's goodwill, both to legislators and to voters statewide. It's no guarantee that the Legislature will stay put eternally, but eases at least one of the pressure points - a lack of space to do the state's business comfortably. And it's nothing new: In the past Juneau has chipped in, as it did by purchasing Telephone Hill, where someday the state (or city?) may build a new seat of government.

By anyone's measure, Alaska's Capitol is among the most cramped nationwide. It is a lovely building and steeped in what history a young state may have, but it's not the most inviting place for committee hearings of proposed legislation. Spilling across the street to an annex that could offer more spacious rooms for several committees makes sense. Perhaps those spaces could even be linked to the Capitol through a skywalk. If legislators or the administration also need office space, there's plenty inside the historic structure that's now for sale.

And the price is right: $750,000. Some homes in the downtown area approach that figure, and for its money the city both preserves a historic landmark and provides a service to the state and its citizens.

Less attractive is the suggestion - also discussed last week - that the city could raze the building and offer it as a parking structure. It's no secret that downtown Juneau lacks parking at peak times, but voters have already committed to stepping up with an extended optional sales tax to help with that. They did not vote to rip down a historic structure and build a garage for legislators. The sales-tax vote was meant to help Juneau residents, too, and erecting a garage uphill from downtown venues is not the sort of shared solution that seems to have them in mind.

Should the building be purchased and turned over to state use, Juneau Dance Unlimited would appear to face homelessness. The group uses temple space as a studio, and its leaders note that some of the students who might otherwise be headed toward dancing careers could be without the necessary training facilities. The city's response: We'll accommodate dance rehearsals and performances elsewhere. The city would seem in a good position to do so, especially given its continuing effort to secure the downtown armory and help transform it into a performing arts center. But that project is off in the future, and city officials should make clear their interim plans before the dance group is thrown into disarray. This is a city with an appropriate tradition of supporting culture as much as it supports state government. In fact, the two go hand-in-hand.

Barring unforeseen objections from the Legislature, the city should move forward with a plan to refurbish the Scottish Rite Temple into a worthy hall for the people's work.

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