The hole in the heart of downtown

Posted: Thursday, April 24, 2008

If ash from a Pompeii-like volcano suddenly covered up Juneau tomorrow, the menagerie of garbage in the pit where the old Skinner building once stood at the corner of Front and Seward streets would tell future archeologists at least one thing about our society: We liked to party.

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David Sheakley / Juneau Empire
David Sheakley / Juneau Empire

Copious amounts of discarded liquor bottles lie piled among 40 oz. beer bottles, empty cigarette packs and butts, sharing the dirt with soda bottles, coffee cups, McDonald's wrappers, a tennis ball, a mop, wood products, piles of rocks and an abandoned garbage can. Since a fire gutted the building at 213 Front St. on the warm summer Sunday of Aug. 15, 2004, the property where a building stood for nearly 108 years has remained an ominous hole in the heart of the city.

Historically known as the C.W. Young building, many called the complex Town Center Mall up until it burned to the ground more than three years ago after a fire ignited while workers were applying tar to the roof above the former Dragon Inn. The workers attempted to extinguish the fire by themselves for around 15 minutes before calling Capital City Fire and Rescue around 2:50 in the afternoon, but the fire had already begun creeping its way through the innards of the 19th century building, and wafts of smoke soon enveloped downtown.

Firefighters were able to contain the fire, not allowing a conflagration to devour nearby structures, but the old Skinner building was declared a total loss. In the days after the fire the city deemed the fallen building a "public nuisance" and sent a letter to the owner demanding that it be fixed or demolished. The owner complied by removing the remains of the fire-gutted structure and erecting barriers around the hole. And there action ground to a halt; the property has remained dormant for going on 4 years with the exception of a food stand.

Officials say the city has no authority to require the owners to rebuild, develop or sell the property in the crossroads of the business district. No building permits have been submitted, one official said.

When contacted, an owner would only say they are "considering options" for the property. Since we have no clue what might one day replace the old Skinner building. Below, Hooligan has taken it upon itself to offer some helpful suggestions of what could be done with the hole valued at nearly $1 million.

How to fill a hole, the Hooligan way

Ball pit: Stateworkers won't need to worry about paying exorbitant child-care costs when they can simply leave their kids in the new downtown ball pit and pick them up when they get off work at 3:30 p.m. Plus, last call at the Viking would never be the same; imagine Ultimate Fighting Championship at Chuck E. Cheese.

Water park: We propose one more ballot measure on the Mendenhall Valley pool and ask voters to consider building a Raging Waters-type theme park in the heart of our downtown business corridor. Think about it ... how sweet would a wave pool and some waterslides be smack in the middle of downtown? The brain drain argument that there is not enough to do in Juneau could never hold water again.

Outdoor zoo: Problem black bears that defy Alaska Department of Fish & Game relocation efforts could be housed in Juneau's new downtown zoo, ensuring that our nearly 1 million annual cruise ship visitors can get a photo of ursus garbicanus. And maybe when the sea ice disappears in the arctic region we could adopt a polar bear and house it in the pit.

Money pit: It's hard for some of us to imagine how a hole in the ground could be so valuable, but it is. Since in a way it's a metaphorical money pit, instead of throwing beer cans in the hole (each worth a 5-cent deposit in Hawaii) how about getting people to throw money in it instead? There could be a sign put up to convince tourists that it's Juneau's own dirt version of the Trevi Fountain: if you throw money in the pit you will one day return to Alaska's capital city.

Wind farm: With heating oil prices up and Snettisham down, now is the perfect time to think about diversifying our city's energy resources. Setting up some wind turbines could capture energy from the powerful Taku winds and from the hot air of bloviating legislators during the session. Juneau would be well on its way to a Green City Award.

Garbage dump: Why continue to expend the fuel resources on shipping downtown residents' rubbish to the landfill in Lemon Creek when we can just finish what's been started and fill the hole up with more beer bottles, French fry containers and empty cigarette packs. There's no need to keep building Mt. Stinko so tall when it appears we've already started a new dump downtown.

Orca tank: The capital city could dazzle children and tourists alike with its very own 5-million gallon Plexiglas aquarium to house an acrobatic killer whale. Seeing orcas swim up Gastineau Channel is enough to create a traffic jam on Egan Drive, so imagine the clamor that would be created from the "Shamu in Southeast" show.

Jewelry store: Some outside interests might argue that the thing the downtown business district needs most is another corporately-owned jewelry store. Imagine the glory of a six-storied be-all-and-end-all mega jewelry store selling tanzanite dreams.

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