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Before decrying the poor state of development on South Franklin Street, let me first say that the area looks a heckuva lot better than it did in 1981 when I moved to Juneau (due entirely to tourism-related investment). Let me also say that I'm not against tourism in general, or against cruise ship tourism in particular. I like the fact that we get more than a million visitors each year. I think it's amazing, really, and there is no doubt that the visitor industry contributes substantially to our economy. However, left entirely to its own it has produced a very uninteresting retail strip that offers little of interest to visitors - and is of virtually no use to residents.
How bad is it? I did an informal survey the other day and counted no less than 26 full-on jewelry stores in the zone from corner of Franklin and Front streets to Taku Fisheries - and that's not counting places that sell some jewelry along with artwork and other stuff. A few are venerable, locally owned Juneau enterprises. Most of the others have a decidedly non-local look and feel. Throw in a few faux Alaska fur and leather shops, a variety of trinket and T-shirt outlets and some art galleries, and that pretty well sums up the South Franklin experience. There is only one genuinely good visitor venue in the entire area - the Mount Robert's tram. Most of the rest is dreadfully predictable tourism retail.
Not that it is all bad, and I'm not trying to single out any one store ... it's just the unrelieved mass of it that produces such a "yuck factor." Sure, it's good for the Juneau property owners who lease the space, and it produces sales tax revenues. But I contend that a more diversified retail sector would produce a greater interest and a better shopping experience for visitors and could provide yearround value to the community, rather than the shuttered up winter ghost town that South Franklin Street is now.
How could we accomplish this? Let's try actively promoting our million-plus visitor stream to other retailers that almost certainly do not realize that this rather unique marketing opportunity exists. We might learn something from Freeport, Maine, which really concentrates on attracting high quality retailers. They have a much more interesting mix of local, regional and national outlets. The existing stores are mostly those that follow the cruise ship industry around. Let's actively reach out to retailers such as Hermes, Abercrombie & Fitch or Anne Klein. The list is long, and some actually sell stuff that Juneauites might be able to use.
The next thing we need to do is create more genuinely valuable attractions in the area. The community should really get behind the group that wants to bring the historic Coast Guard Cutter Storis to Juneau as a museum. USCG Storis was the first U.S. vessel to navigate the Northwest passage and put in nearly 60 years of distinguished service in Alaska and in the North Atlantic during World War II. Itcan be berthed downtown in conjunction with the proposed rebuild of the downtown docks. What a great attraction it would be. And a full-blown maritime museum is long overdue. Did you know that Alaska has no maritime museum whatsoever, despite our enormous dependence on the sea? If you want to know just how much we lack in this area, check out www.maritimemuseums.net. You'll see what other states have. It's embarrassing, really.
Whatever we do, Juneau, let's not just sit back and accept the boring status quo. We can do better. Visitors and residents alike will benefit from a thorough revamping of the South Franklin Street "Magic Blingdom".
Greg Fisk is vice chairman of the Docks and Harbors Board and a board member of the Juneau Economic Development Council. He's been an Alaska resident since 1959 and a Juneau resident since 1981.