Proponents of a life-sized bronze whale sculpture planned for Marine Park downtown won a victory Monday night as the Juneau Assembly approved $500,000 in sales tax revenue to start the project.
In a split vote of 5-3, the Assembly gave a group of private citizens called the Whale Committee the money to start the sculpting and casting process and help boost fundraising efforts for the piece of art, which is expected to cost $2.5 million.
The sculpture was originally envisioned more than 10 years ago by former Juneau Mayor Bill Overstreet, who resurrected the idea last year as a way for Juneau to celebrate Alaska's 50th anniversary of statehood.
Artist Skip Wallen is working on the design. The cost of production is estimated at $1.2 million. Site preparation to accommodate fountains and an "infinity" pool is estimated to cost another $1.3 million.
The city's $500,000 contribution, to be appropriated from the city's sales tax reserve fund, will help fundraising efforts by showing the group has money in hand and also will allow Wallen to start working on the piece, committee spokeswoman Laraine Derr told the Assembly Monday.
Several Assembly members voiced concern over spending sales tax revenue on the project.
"We have taxed people's food in order to pay for this piece of art," Assembly member Sara Chambers said. "When people are making their budgets - food, shelter, clothing are a huge concern right now - I can't yet see how it's substantiated to be a public works project, and how it will pay itself back in tourism dollars."
Proponents say the whale will be an attraction to be photographed by thousands who visit Juneau. Derr compared it to Seattle's Space Needle as an icon for the city.
Kay Diebels said the sculpture would be an investment in Juneau's economic future, adding that the money was needed now so the sculpture could be finished for the statehood anniversary celebration next year.
Assembly member Bob Doll also disagreed with the source of funding, saying the city faced more pressing needs such as a recycling program and improvements to the citywide bus system. He eventually voted for the financial appropriation, after saying he hoped to see support for those two projects from the Assembly in the future.
The sales tax reserve fund was established about 10 years ago as a source of money for the city to continue basic public services in the event of unseen economic circumstances, City Manager Rod Swope said. Its balance is about $10 million.
Assembly members discussed whether cruise ship passenger fees could fund the whale instead of sales taxes, but it remained unclear Monday whether that was possible.
The Assembly initially voted on a motion to table the issue, with several members saying the project needed more vetting, but it failed under a tie vote.
Mayor Bruce Botelho and Assembly members Jeff Bush, Johan Dybdahl, Merrill Sanford and Doll voted for the measure. Chambers, Jonathan Anderson and Randy Wanamaker voted against it.
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