Sealaska to buy 'the pit'

Posted: Sunday, June 20, 2010

Sealaska Corp. has reached a deal to buy the downtown property known as "the pit" from owner Hugh Grant.

Michael Penn / Juneau Empire
Michael Penn / Juneau Empire

Grant, a longtime Juneau businessman who owns the land with three family members and partner Thomas Huntington, received widespread criticism for the run-down state of the half-block lot in the middle of downtown. The sidewalk running along the property has started to crumble following a 2004 fire that destroyed the building there.

The regional Native corporation will give the property, located at 213 Front St., to its sister nonprofit organization, Sealaska Heritage Institute, to build a cultural and visitors center.

The selling price was $800,000, according to Grant.

Grant and Huntington were ordered by the city in April to fill the hole and fix the sidewalks or face a lawsuit seeking at least $100,000 in damage.

Grant said Friday he thought the land was worth more like $950,000 but the city's complaint reduced its value. Work is ongoing, he said, with a city-imposed deadline of July 1.

Sealaska plans to landscape the lot after it takes ownership, likely in mid-July, until the heritage institute can raise enough money to build the cultural center, Sealaska Executive Vice President Rick Harris said.

The center will be a first-rate institution for the study of Native cultures, preservation of historical papers and ethnographic collections, and the cultivation of Native culture, arts and languages, Sealaska said in a Friday announcement about the land purchase.

The new building is estimated to cost $16 million.

The Alaska Legislature appropriated $2 million this year to the Sealaska Heritage Institute for the center. The money will be used to plan the building. SHI will pay for the rest through fundraising, the company said.

The Tlingit and Haida Central Council had announced plans in March to buy the property for a cultural center and college but one month later, the Tribal Assembly failed to approve the use of trust fund money to complete a sale.

A call to the office of Central Council President Ed Thomas was not returned Friday. Former President Bill Martin declined to comment on the sale of the property to Sealaska, saying, "I'm out of the loop."

Martin retired after losing an April election to Thomas, who also serves on the Sealaska board of directors.

In answer to a question about whether the two entities were competing for the land, Harris said Sealaska made an unsuccessful bid to purchase the property about five years ago and also had architectural renderings completed.

"The bottom line is, the property will benefit downtown Juneau and the community as a whole and it will benefit the culture," Harris said. "I think we will have a good working relationship with the council and SHI in developing the facility."

Sealaska founded SHI in 1980 to administer its educational and cultural programs and continues to be the institute's largest sponsor.

The institute's mission is to perpetuate and enhance Tlingit, Haida and Tsimshian cultures of Southeast Alaska.

Before it was 'the pit'

The property's former building was 108 years old when it burned to the ground on Aug. 15, 2004. As the site fell into disarray in the ensuing years, some residents started calling it "the pit."

In March, members of the group Leadership Juneau asked the Juneau Assembly to take action or help figure out a solution for the area. They started a Facebook page called "Fix the Pit" that drew more than 500 members.

The former building had been known as Town Center Mall but through numerous remodelings was called other names since it went up in 1896. Records from 1977 show it was owned by Skinner Enterprises at the time, and many still called it the Skinner building when it burned down. It was historically known as the C.W. Young building.

The building was a hardware store for most of its existence but had at least one brush with tragedy, according to Juneau Empire archives.

After the Princess Sofia, a Canadian Pacific Liner, ran aground on Oct. 24, 1918, in Lynn Canal, the victims' bodies were stacked up in the back of the building, making it Juneau's first mortuary. The shipwreck claimed the lives of more than 300 people.

• Contact reporter Kim Marquis at 523-2279 or kim.marquis@juneauempire.com.





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