Empire Editorial: There's not a bad project in the bunch

Posted: Friday, September 30, 2005

Juneau voters and interest groups have their favorites. Somehow they've spent the last couple of months bickering about whose project deserves the nod. But the fact is that every item on Tuesday's municipal sales tax ballot builds Juneau into a stronger community and state capital. And they're not mutually exclusive.

Those who put basics such as sewer extensions first are right. The city has been slow, if not derelict, in meeting its sanitation needs. Pollution spills from existing homes and inadequate septic tanks. That's true even in parts of the borough that are long-since developed, not to mention any news areas that might be opened for development and aid in Juneau's housing crisis. Infrastructure including sewer is an obvious need. It's also, as it turns out, the cheapest of the measures on the ballot. Sewage expansion is folded into an $18.5 million package that includes a much-need downtown parking garage, expansion at Don Statter Boat Harbor in Auke Bay and a mid-mountain chairlift that will help extend Eaglecrest Ski Area's fickle seasons. These projects all enhance the city's livability, and they're overdue.

Those who assert that the Mendenhall Valley wants but doesn't need a swimming pool - the most expensive item on the ballot - make recreation, exercise and team sports sound frivolous. They are not. Just as neighborhoods need parks, communities need swimming pools. The valley does not have one, and neither will its planned high school if this issue fails. Opponents have said the city potentially cost itself the $26 million price of the proposed aquatic center when it declined to promise JRC The Alaska Club that it would not build a valley pool if the club did. What they ignore is that the club's proposed pool was entirely inadequate to the community's needs because it would have offered inconvenient hours to nonmembers, would not be able to maintain temperatures for the public and for school competitions concurrently and would not be up to the standards required to host state swimming meets. The last point is significant economically because to date the state's capital and third-largest city is unequipped to host state high school championships and all-ages meets that draw thousands to their locales in the course of a year.

Another point rarely mentioned in the aquatic center debate is that ultimately it could serve as an anchor for a community center for an otherwise suburban valley, in time offering valley residents an adequate library and meeting hall.

Lastly, Juneau International Airport is the capital's gateway to the state and world, and is likely to remain so well into the future despite a wish list that for some includes a road north. State transportation officials already have modified their road plan such that even if it is funded and wins environmental approval it will lead to a ferry terminal closer to Skagway, and not to the continental highway grid. The airport, last updated in 1984, is due for a makeover that will take years even if Juneau voters approve their portion of the funding - $20 million - on Tuesday. In the continuing tug-of-war over the state capital, Juneau would do well to show the state that it is trying to make itself more accessible.

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