Alaska Digest

Posted: Monday, June 04, 2007

Historic orphanage to undergo repairs

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ANCHORAGE - The birthplace of Alaska's flag will get its first roof and foundation repairs in decades thanks to a state grant that supporters hope is a big leap toward opening a new leadership charter school that would draw students from all over Alaska.

The Jesse Lee Home, a three-story Seward orphanage opened in the mid-1920s, got $1 million in historic preservation money in the capital improvements budget now awaiting the governor's signature. It's the project's first significant infusion of construction money, and it will pay to repair and stabilize the building while organizers seek millions more to refurbish the Tudor-style building that was abandoned in 1965.

In its day, the home served many Alaska Native children displaced by epidemic disease, and it's where a young resident - Benny Benson - designed the eight stars of gold on a field of blue that now flies over state properties. A group calling itself Friends of the Jesse Lee Home hopes to restore it as a short-term boarding school where students from around the state could spend a semester or two learning leadership skills or, in conjunction with the Alaska SeaLife Center, marine biology.

"It's really a concept of preserving our past to build our future," said Marcia Hastings of the Alaska Community Foundation, which is coordinating fundraising efforts for the group.

The Legislature approved the money as a grant through the Alaska Department of Natural Resources' State Historical Preservation Office. Current estimates call for $12 million or more to complete the project, Hastings said, though about $8 million of that may be covered by tax credits.

Child raising money to repair school roof

PALMER - While many kids will be spending their summer on the lake, or playing video games, 9-year-old Kurt Statz has other plans.

He wants to raise $5,000 dollars this summer for a new roof for his school.

Matanuska Christian School teacher Roben Collins said Kurt's mother, Denise Statz, came to the school to tell her about Kurt's plans. Collins said while she thought it was a nice idea, she wasn't sure how it would go.

To her surprise, Kurt earned more than $600 his first week. Then she began to take the idea more seriously.

"That's what kind of class I have had this year." Collins said. "Amazing kids."

Kurt, with help from his mom, owner of the Nonessentials gift shop in Palmer, set up a booth at Friday Flings, just down the street from the school. His booth holds a mishmash of local Alaska-made products like jam, fudge and soap, as well as global items like colorful woven baskets from Ghana. He even sells $2 bags of rhubarb that his family grows at home.

His father said he would match Kurt's earnings with an equal amount of labor and materials for the roof.

"It has become sort of a friendly family competition," Kurt's mother said.

Road plan frustrates McCarthy residents

ANCHORAGE - A notoriously jarring road into the country's largest national park will see a $9 million upgrade starting this summer.

That's not enough for some people living at the end of 61-mile McCarthy Road, or for those trying to get more visitors to Wrangell-St. Elias National Park.

They're ticked that the state, which will do the work, recently ditched a long-term planning effort that might have led to a wider, safer road - possibly even a paved one - complete with pullouts, bathrooms and historical signs.

That effort - preparing an environmental impact statement - began five years ago. It's cost the state $3.3 million.

But state highway managers changed course in April. Throwing more money into the plan would be a waste of funds and they can still use what's been learned so far, they say.

Upgrading the entire gravel road would cost more than $100 million, and getting that much money is unlikely, given the state's other road needs, they say. Now the state plans to improve some sections and repair others washed away by floods last fall.

"It's pretty sad," said Neil Darish, owner of the McCarthy Lodge.

Planning for a new road has gone on for 20 years, often dividing the town of 60 residents between those who wanted repairs and those who didn't, said Rick Kenyon, co-chair of Coalition for Access to McCarthy. But people have come together in recent years, only to have the state back out, he said.

"I'm not very happy about it," he said.

The state's new plan includes $5 million for preventive maintenance, such as crowning the road to encourage runoff and raising the entire road with gravel to reduce water erosion, said transportation spokeswoman Shannon McCarthy.

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