In 1867, U.S. Secretary of State William Seward bought Alaska from Russia for $7 million. More than a century later, the city of Juneau spent about the same amount to build Centennial Hall - a conference and civic center that has played a central role in the lives of Juneau residents for the past 20 years.
"We paid a little bit more for Centennial Hall" than the United States did for Alaska, said Bill Overstreet, mayor of Juneau at the time of the hall's construction. "I always laughed about that."
Centennial Hall celebrates its 20th anniversary this year and hosts special events this weekend, beginning with a community service awards dinner Friday night and ending with the Only Fools Run at Midnight race at 11:59 p.m. Saturday.
Anniversary celebration Special events include:
Community Service Award Dinner, 7 p.m. Friday at the hall. $30.
Car Rally, scavenger hunt on wheels, 10:30 a.m. Saturday at the Nugget Mall parking lot near Valley Lumber. $15.
Taste of Juneau, starts at 11 a.m. Saturday at the hall. Includes local food, a big band, balloon animals, clowns and magic shows.
The Quick Draw, 12:30 p.m. Saturday at the hall, artists create works in one hour. Auction at 3 p.m.
19th Annual Only Fools Run, 11:59 p.m. Saturday at the hall.
The idea for a convention center was discussed as early as the 1950s by local leaders. But it wasn't until the late 1970s, when talk of moving the capital spread through the state, that the city looked seriously at building such a center, said Overstreet.
"We had been engaged in a great fight to retain (the capital), which we were successful with in 1982," Overstreet said.
City leaders realized that if Juneau lost the capital, it would lose a large portion of its economy. So they came up with an economic development plan that included a convention center.
"We were seeing it as something that would give (Juneau) a little viable economic activity," he said. "It was seen as something that would make the place an attractive place for folks to come for conventions - and the community would get some measure of prosperity from that."
In 1979, the city assembled the Centennial Center Design Group to assess possible sites. The name celebrated the 100th anniversary of Juneau's founding in 1880. The group, composed primarily of local architects, chose the Willoughby Avenue location. The Alaska Legislature gave $8 million to the city to fund the project and ground was broken in 1981.
In January 1983, before the hall was fully built, Gov. Bill Sheffield's inaugural ball was the first event held, said Dayle Tennison, the Centennial Hall manager who began working at the center as a clerk typist 17 years ago.
Less than a month before the hall's grand opening celebration on June 11, 1983, a fire erupted in the ballroom, where workers were installing the floor.
"It caused about one-third of the wood floor in the ballroom to be damaged by fire," Tennison said.
The fire was put out by a sprinkler system, adding water damage to the fire-damaged floor. The floor was repaired in time for the inaugural events, though, and country singer Nicolette Larsen, the guest artist for the inaugural events, was able to perform as planned.
In the past 20 years, the staff of Centennial Hall has updated most of the center's fixtures except the chairs and the tables for banquets, Tennison said.
"It's an expensive process to get 1,500 chairs," she said.
With a maximum capacity of about 2,000 seats in its seven rooms, the hall has been the prime space in Juneau for any event planned for more than 150 people, Tennison said.
The Juneau Public Market, an annual crafts show and merchandise sale during the Christmas shopping season, is the longest-running event at the hall. The Alaska Folk Festival, which has taken place there every April since 1984, regularly attracts the most people.
The event that draws the largest crowd in one day is the biennial Celebration, a Native cultural event that attracts more than 2,000 people.
"Some people have to be turned away to meet fire and safety code," said Tennison. Celebration has been held at Centennial Hall every other year since 1984.
Forty percent of the hall's use is by nonprofit organizations, which receive a 40 percent discount on rental fees. To celebrate the hall's anniversary, all organizations that book in July, August and December of this year will receive an additional 20 percent discount.
Though the hall remains busy, it is not as full as when it opened, Tennison said.
"Because I think of the anticipation of the convention center coming into place and aggressive marketing, we had lots of conventions right away," Tennison said. "Now there's more competition in our state."
The hall began operations in 1983 with seven full-time employees. Now, four full-time and nine part-time employees work to accommodate the 75,000-plus people who attend events every year.
The hall operates on a $662,000 annual budget, with revenue coming from event fees, space leased to the Juneau Convention and Visitors Bureau for its visitors center and the Alaska Marine Highway System, and the city-imposed hotel bed tax.
Christine Schmid can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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