Can Tenakee change?

Isolated town struggles against a sinking economy, aftereffects of a murder trial

Posted: Sunday, May 15, 2005

TENAKEE -Vicki Wisenbaugh started a new job last May as owner of the decades-old Snyder Mercantile, the lone grocery in Tenakee Springs. She had never run a market before, and, in fact, prefers to spend most of her time at home.

But Wisenbaugh, a Tenakee resident since 1982, had already seen too much change in the Chichagof Island town of 105.

"I love the old Tenakee," said Wisenbaugh, and one look at the hand-cranked 1917 cash register will confirm that. "The heart of the town is our old store. It's really important to keep some things basically the same."

Tenakee, where dogs share the main, gravel road with bicycles, slugs and ATVs, still has plenty of its traditions. The town comes alive at 8 a.m., when Frances Jacobs' bakery opens for breakfast. Many of the men in town gather at the bathhouse around 5 p.m. to discuss news, and many of the women start showing up around 6.

But Tenakee is changing quickly. Like many small towns in Alaska, it's struggling to find some source of money after the state cut its local government revenue-sharing program in 2004.

"You've got a certain mindset in the Legislature, mainly from the northern folks, that if you cannot make it in the village, move to the city," longtime resident and Wings of Alaska manager Don Pegues said.

The city has been operating on reduced core services for the last month and is searching for a long-range plan to keep its fuel department solvent and affordable for heating and electricity. Diesel, for home heating, is $3.80 per gallon, at least a $1.50 increase since last year.

There have also been a lot of changes in the city administration. Tenakee has had three financial officers in the last nine months, the city has changed its accounting software and is still sorting out its bank accounts, and there are two vacancies on the City Council.

Its financial crises are piling up, just as the town is trying to regain its bearings after the five-week murder trial in Juneau of James Harmon, who was convicted of killing Maggie Wigen in 2003 in Tenakee. Many of the town's residents were subpoenaed by both the prosecution and defense, and were on call until the end of the trial.

"Many of us had the extra burden of being best friends with the family of (Wigen) and (Harmon)," said Roger Lewis, a longtime Tenakee resident.

"I was more upset before a resolution was reached," he said. "If the 12 people on the jury hadn't decided it was James, that means whoever did it was walking amongst us. And that's scary. So I think people, instead of facing that possibility, zeroed in on James and had already convicted and hung him. Because to think otherwise was unthinkable."

"People haven't gotten back to the natural flow of things," said Shelly Wilson, ex-mayor and a resident for 15 years. "You don't hear a lot of budget talk. There's too much to think about and maybe some things that should be given optimal attention are probably not."

"That's probably true, but I don't know that we have the time," Wisenbaugh said. "Some of these projects require a lot of time, and there's a lot of steps that have to be taken for them to be initiated. If people have ideas we need to move on them."

On Friday morning in Tenakee, the six members of the Land Sales Committee tried to get down to business. They held their fifth meeting to decide whether, and where, to sell land to raise revenue for the town. The city owns 7,000 acres. At this point, city ordinances say that only the interest from such a sale could be used for government. But there aren't a lot of alternatives for revenue, outside of a property tax.

Joan McBeen, a member of the land committee, has lived in Tenakee since 1977. She moved to Tenakee because it's small and remote. She lives 112 miles west, by a twisty footpath, of the center of town. She's concerned that if Tenakee sells land on the western reaches of the town boundaries, those new homeowners will want more services and better access.

"If they had a subdivision there, what's the first thing those 10 property owners are going to want? A road," McBeen said. "And where's that road going to go? Between my house and my garden.

"I don't want to see that, and that's not the reason that a lot of us moved here. We moved here to get away from all the things that are associated with having lots of people, like pollution and noise."

The meeting adjourned after an hour, in which the committee decided to task the City Council with creating a questionnaire for the town's residents. There were four members of the public in the room, 10 people total in the city office room. But that was about one-ninth of the town. This is small government, and it's shrunk in the last few months.

Shortly before she resigned in April, Wilson and the City Council signed an emergency ordinance cutting the city's essential services to save money. Librarian Lisa Speno was laid off, and a group of volunteers now keeps the library open 10 hours a week. The harbormaster's salary was eliminated, though a part-time harbormaster still collects transient fees. The fire chief was laid off. Public works have been cut to emergency-use only.

Commercial fisherman Art Bloom has been Tenakee's mayor for three weeks. He volunteered to serve on the City Council and was quickly elected City Council president.

Tom Leet, the new city clerk, was hired to work eight hours a week. He moved to town last Sunday, boating 412 hours from Juneau, via Icy Strait, in his light-green cabin cruise, Thumper II.

"It's not like a cubicle job in the SOB (State Office Building) that's going to get me to retirement," Leet said. "It's pretty earthy, folky, and from what I can see the primary function is to take care of those things that the individual can't. If anybody can take care of anything themselves here, they will."

That seems to be the prevailing notion. Much of the town provides for itself and each other and has been through difficult times before.

"Some of our best and brightest were raised here, know the issues more than anybody else, have the greatest stakes and are young, but the'yre not picking up the load," Lewis said. "They say, whatever happens, go ahead. Were going to be living here no matter what happens. They may be right."

"I think that people are still under the impression that everything will work out just fine," Wilson said. "You either live in denial, or you don't. Things may turn out just fine, but we're staggering so bad that we have to cut our essential services to basically none. It's hard to bring yourself out of something like that."

Besides the cutoff of revenue sharing, Tenakee is faced with some other issues.

Less than two years ago, Kadashan Bay Corp., a family-owned group of longtime Tenakee residents, ran the fuel department and owned the Snyder Mercantile (grocery) building, the building that houses the town bakery, and a number of cabins and homes throughout town.

The family behind Kadashan decided to retire and sold most of its holding to Juneau-based Trucano Investments. But Trucano didn't want to operate the fuel dock, which meant Tenakee had to figure out a way to run it.

"The city was looking at no fuel service, no electricity, no heat," Wilson said. "There was not a whole lot of choice."

The town had to come up with the money to pay for the fuel in the tanks, and decided to take out a $47,000 loan from the bank, using a land endowment fund as collateral. Recently, the town received a $50,000 emergency small assistance grant from the state to help with rising costs of fuel. Tenakee is deciding whether to use that money to pay off the grant or buy fuel in the future.

The town also would like to find a way to buy enough fuel to earn a discounted rate. As it is now, Tenakee is served by a barge four or five times a year and often has to buy its fuel at high prices. That's driven away the seine fleet, which can fill up in Hoonah at a lower price. It's also driven up the electrical rates as high as 50 cents a kilowatt.

"Given those kinds of energy costs, I'm not sure how the bakery and (Snyder Mercantile) do it now," Bloom said. "They have old buildings that are uninsulated and have to be heated in the winter. It may sound like doom and gloom, but it looks like if nothing's done, there's a good possibility that the store would close, the bakery would close, and that would change the town quite a bit."

"I don't think anybody's feeling the impact yet, but if it continues snowballing and and if people aren't making money and there are no services, that would be a catalyst for people to migrate elsewhere," Wilson said.

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