Pros, cons of the high cost of living

Posted: Sunday, November 17, 2002

While the cost of living in Juneau may be higher than average, many people consider the quality of life here to be priceless.

"I can look out my window and see the glacier, or be in the car for five minutes to get to trails," said Maureen Riley, who owns a house in the Mendenhall Valley with her husband Pete Hettinger and two children. With their two cars, two young kids and two careers - Maureen sells real estate for Century 21 and Pete is a captain at Capital City Fire & Rescue - Riley and Hettinger consider themselves middle class.

"It's expensive to live here, but it's relative to how much money you can make," Maureen said. "You can make a good living in this town."

Riley and Hettinger feel the high cost of living most in home maintenance and heating bills.

"It's cold here, and the weather is hard on houses," Riley said. "Also, you have to spend a lot of money on winter clothes for kids that they grow out of."

Getting out of town is an added expense for the family, but they manage to do it on a regular basis.

"We vacation more than most people, but that's our priority," she said. "I buy my furniture at garage sales ... and our cars are paid for and they're old."

Bruce Massey, who lives in the Valley with his wife Nancy, two daughters, two dogs and two cats, also manages to get out of Juneau, but only for his daughters' sports trips.

"We shell out a couple thousand dollars every year on their softball trips," he said. "The softball trips have been the family vacations."

Massey, an employee of Pepsi Cola Bottling Co., said his family is "just barely" middle class. In addition to traveling expenses related to his daughters' sports, he said real estate costs in Juneau are exorbitant.

"I own a $200,000 house and there's no way in hell a house should cost that much, but it does," he said.

Nevertheless, his family's lifestyle in Juneau makes it worth it.

"I was raised in Detroit, and every week I'm out of Detroit is a great week," he said. "For all intents and purposes, we live in a national park. I can make a living and raise a family here. And we don't have crime like the rest of America has crime."

For Juneau residents still struggling to establish a career, dealing with Juneau's high costs can overshadow the town's natural beauty. Angeline Edge, a full-time student at the University of Alaska Southeast and mother of two, said she barely could afford to get to Juneau, let alone get out on vacation.

"The cost of getting here to attend college would have been too expensive if it hadn't been for the St. Vincent de Paul Society," Edge said.

In addition to moving expenses, the nonprofit service agency helped her with the deposit on her federally subsidized duplex apartment.

Edge moved here from a homestead in Delta Junction, and said it was difficult getting used to the sales taxes in Juneau after living in the tax-free town. She also is getting used to an existence based less upon the land and more upon the free market.

"It was a whole different type of life up there," said Edge, who works part time at the UAS library and at the Northern Light United Church child care during Sunday services.

One expense that surprised her about Juneau is the cost of entertainment for her 11- and 14-year-old children.

"Recreation for young people in this town is very expensive," she said. "My kids really don't get to do as much recreation as other kids get to do."

The family rarely goes to movies, and sleds rather than skis or snowboards at Eaglecrest. In the summer the family wades in Mendenhall Lake, swims at the beach and picnics at the Auke Bay Recreation Area - less-expensive activities they enjoy with Juneau residents of all incomes.

"Even if we had a lot of money, we would still do those things," she said.

Quality of life helps to make Juneau's high costs bearable.

"The quality of life is what makes it way worth living up here," said Stuart Cohen, who owns Invisible World, a South Franklin Street store, and a home on Starr Hill. "I think we have so much that other people don't have that the difference in money is not that important.

"There are standards of living that are completely apart from money. We can walk to visit friends, buy food, go to work, and that's extremely valuable."

Because of Juneau's close-knit community, Cohen believes it is possible to stay entertained without spending a lot of money. Also, status symbols that have a lot of clout down south do not have the same influence in Juneau.

"It's not worth it to have a fancy car up here because it will get destroyed by the weather," he said. "I lived in New York City and there's nothing to do there but spend money. Juneau is different."

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