Empire Editorial: Merchant's Wharf will not save itself

Posted: Sunday, July 03, 2005

The question for Juneau isn't whether to preserve Merchants Wharf; it's how.

Some Juneau residents are worried - and rightly so - that the historic landmark will be torn down and replaced with a new arm of Marine Park; a new building, sans charm and history; or a parking lot for more tour buses.

A few critics are pointing the finger at the owners of the waterfront mall, saying they're being swayed by the almighty dollar instead of a sense of history and concern for the community. Such a characterization is unfair. If a family owned a 100-year-old home packed with history, but couldn't afford the tens of thousands of dollars needed to replace the foundation and roof, neighbors could hardly fault the family for abandoning the home to demolition. Likewise, people should not blame the owners of Merchants Wharf when repairs would run into several millions of dollars.

If this building means a lot to the people of Juneau, they should come forward to save it, as people in other towns have to preserve their own historic landmarks.

Defenders of Merchants Wharf need to form a group dedicated to protecting this piece of Juneau history, just as people have joined together to preserve the Governor's Mansion. Then leaders of the wharf group need to find out how they can protect this building that keeps the downtown waterfront a vibrant place for local residents.

Concerned citizens need to tap into the resources that have helped other towns maintain aging buildings when the economics did not at first seem to pan out. Among these resources are the Alaska Association for Historic Preservation and the National Trust for Historic Preservation.

Action should be taken immediately to place Merchants Wharf on preservationists' list of endangered buildings and the National Register of Historic Places. The latter would not lock the owners into any obligation to maintain the building, but would make it eligible for federal funds that would help restore it.

This new group to save Merchants Wharf needs to find out what state, federal and private grants are available to protect the building. And it should launch a local fund-raising effort immediately. No single savior will be able to keep that building on its pilings, and funding needs to come from as many sources as possible.

Organizers of the group also need to recruit the right people who can explore different options for this building and are willing to work with the building's owners, as well as lobby city leaders for their support. One possibility is to convince the city to purchase the building, continue to lease it to businesses, and use a combination of state and federal grants and private donations to defray the cost of repairs.

Those working to preserve the building, however, should be careful that efforts to save it don't turn it into a museum. Merchants Wharf is a vital part of downtown because it's not just an intriguing relic, but a place where Juneau residents and visitors can shop, eat out or listen to live music. The building needs to be maintained as a vital and working part of Juneau commerce, not simply as some reminder of the city's early history.

If people want to save this building that evokes so much of Juneau's past, they need to start working today. In 15 years, people should not be walking along that waterfront thinking, "This is where Merchants Wharf used to be." Rather, they should be thinking "This old building wouldn't still be here if I hadn't helped save it."

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