Tearing down the wharf shopping center would be a great loss

Posted: Friday, May 06, 2005

On the WaterfrontBy Elton Engstrom

It's too bad that the city is negotiating to buy and tear down the Wharf Mall.

It is a vibrant place on a sunny day. You can get a seat at Doc Waters - there are 10 outside tables - and view the mountains and water. Or, you can sit on the sturdy walkway that fronts the whole property. I saw six people there a couple of days ago.

I often walk in front of the mall looking down where, through the generations, Alaska Coastal airplanes docked and soared off down the channel. The favorite was the Grumman Goose. I was an airline employee during one summer in the 1950s. I was part of a baggage handling crew. Two of my compatriots were Odd Sundberg from Wrangell and Ernie Sinn from Germany. Baggage made a tight fit. We had to stuff some in the nose of the Goose as well as in the body.

On the Wharf, the greatest loss will be the collection of wonderful businesses. Who hasn't marveled at the variety?

Here are the ones on the main floor: Hanger on the Wharf, where the view is unparalleled among the dining establishments in Juneau or anyplace else in the world; the Hangar Ballroom, which holds important political get-togethers and art shows; Doc Waters; Chilkat Cone Kitchen; Pel-meni Restaurant; Costa's Kitchen; and Pizzeria Roma. Other businesses include Rufus K Page Quilts and Crafts, Deju Vu Antiques, Sunburst Tanning, Trade Winds, 1st Impression Hair Salon and Billiken on the Wharf.

These are funny times, or as Charles Dickens once said, the best and worst of times. The city raises moorage rates on boats in the harbor, the assessor ups the property valuations, the public works department lifts the rates on water and sewer, and some wish for the Juneau tax payers to fund a new state capitol. At the same time, there's a plan to buy and tear down a historical landmark, carrying with it all the character of what Juneau and Southeast Alaska means. It would shut down close to 20 active thriving businesses, whose owners have spent tens of thousands of dollars upgrading their enterprises, and putting out of work dozens of loyal employees.

There's a certain conservatism in sister towns in Southeast Alaska like Ketchikan and Sitka. There's a different feeling here.

Maybe it isn't Juneau. Maybe it's really Palm Springs or Beverly Hills north, Hollywood that is, where anything is possible. Where the next big idea just requires a change of sets.

• Elton Engstrom is a lifelong Alaskan, retired fish-buyer, lawyer and legislator.

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