The conversation about building a fancy new capitol bubbled over last week with Friday's dramatic announcement (in Anchorage) that Juneau is holding a competition to solicit plans for a new building. This idea has been around for years, and I think we, as Juneau residents, need to apply some overdue scrutiny to any new capitol plan before we drop a cool $100 million on Telephone Hill.
I worked six years in the Alaska Capitol as a legislative aide to four legislators in various offices. The building never prevented me or my boss from being efficient and getting the job done. Nor were constituents impeded from accessing their elected representatives solely because of the Capitol's physical limitations. Yes, the columns in the House and Senate chambers obstruct views, but is abandoning the Capitol the only way to remedy that situation? Could we maybe talk about a little remodeling?
How much has the Legislative Council spent fixing up the Capitol in just the past 10 years? There have been countless small projects over time, resulting in the improvement of this magnificent historic building, piece by piece. Just across Fifth Street, the old Capital School has been beautifully recast as the Terry Miller Building, consolidating the offices of the Legislative Affairs Agency and Legal & Research Services. It features a delightful legislative library, and some of the nicest offices in state government. If we jump the gun and build from scratch elsewhere, isn't all this sort of a stranded - if not a wasted - investment?
As to Telephone Hill, is this really the right place to erect a building that is supposed to be more accessible than the one at Fourth and Main streets? Where will the driveway go? Are we going to condemn Napa and the Goldbelt to put up a skybridge, tunnel under the Spam Can, or build a monorail? Just how can we make Telephone Hill easily accessible without spending a pile of money over and above what the new building itself would cost?
My biggest problem with the rush to throw up a new building is that the existing Capitol is a beautiful structure with inherent historical meaning. Do we want to discard that in a misguided (if well-meaning) effort to dazzle Railbelt voters into abandoning capital move schemes? I gave a tour of the Capitol to some visiting Russian judges a few months ago and they were sincerely impressed with the building that houses the heart of Alaska state government. Incremental steps, including substantial remodeling, are a far better way to make the Capitol an accommodating structure. We could improve the House and Senate chambers by expanding them upwards to the third floor, relocating the governor's and lieutenant governor's offices to the State Office Building, and retaining a small 'hideaway' office for the governor, similar to what legislators have in the U.S. Capitol in Washington, D.C.
Couldn't we link the Miller Building and the Capitol together to create more meeting space? Let's investigate acquiring the Scottish Rite Temple and putting its historic space to use to augment the functionality of the Capitol campus. I submit to my fellow Juneau residents that we can make our existing Capitol work better, while retaining our tremendous monetary investments and respecting the historic value of the building.
Looking across the street at the Dimond Courthouse or the S.O.B. begs the question, how can we afford to spend a fortune on a brand new building for the legislative branch when the judicial and executive branches are languishing in facilities with significant deferred maintenance problems?
Already, Railbelt legislators are calling for all the people of Alaska to have a say before $100 million is spent on a building for which they, ultimately, will have to pay. It is a much safer strategy for the Legislature to devise a plan that can be paid for as we go, in capital budget dollars to which both bodies and the governor agree. We don't throw out the baby with the bathwater, we don't break the bank, and we don't turn our backs on our history as Alaskans.
I don't know how many Juneau tax dollars have already been spent on planning a new capitol ($100,000 is budgeted just to pay four finalists to present final plans) but I hope we can stop spending cash willy-nilly until we agree as a community about what we want to do. Only then can we know that we're doing the right thing for Juneau and for Alaska.
Benjamin Brown is a lifelong Alaskan who lives in Juneau.