Legislative session boosts businesses

Some proprietors say sales in past month could have been better

Posted: Thursday, November 22, 2007

A special session of the Alaska Legislature in the slow fall season can't help but boost business downtown, but some proprietors say it could have been better.

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For some businesses, especially in the food, drink and lodging sectors, the time between the last cruise ship and the arrival of the legislators early in the next year is their slowest period.

"Fourth quarter, I bet every business loses money," said Jill Ramiel, owner of the Silverbow Inn and Bakery downtown.

That's why Gov. Sarah Palin's call for the Legislature to come to Juneau to address oil taxes was good news for the town, bringing business in October and November, at a time when there isn't much business to go around.

"In the summer, everyone's packed," said Douglas Arends of Sand Piper Cafe, where fall business was up over last year.

"I'm sure having them in town helps all the restaurants," he said.

And not just the restaurants. Ramiel said she hasn't had time to look at the receipts from the Silverbow Bakery, a popular legislative hangout, but she's rented rooms at the Silverbow Inn that would typically be empty this time of year.

"It was really good for the hotel," she said. They rented rooms to reporters, a legislator and administrative staff from departments based outside Juneau.

"That's October-November revenue we wouldn't have had," she said.

It's not yet clear what the session will cost the state. Legislative Affairs Director Pam Varni said that, based on typical daily expenses, she expected the session to cost about $750,000, but won't know for sure until all the bills are scrutinized and paid.

"I've already had half a million hit, but I don't know what the final number is going to be," she said.

For businesses, an off-season special session is a bonus they didn't expect. Last year's special sessions happened during the summer, when Juneau was already thriving on tourist dollars.

This was the first legislative session in Juneau since new rules were created to rein in the ability of lobbyists to secretly ply legislators with free meals.

Now, any food or drinks over $15 and purchased for legislators or staffers have to be reported.

The restaurant at the Baranof Hotel has already seen a change, said Steve Hamilton, general manager.

"We did see a difference," he said. "Everyone was cautious, people were really watching it."

Another one of Juneau's legislator-lobbyist hot spots, Zephyr restaurant, saw the new mood as well.

"A lot more people were splitting checks," said Brian Sellers, who manages Zephyr's dining room.

Before the new rules, a lobbyist could buy legislators or staffers meals and drinks, and didn't have to tell anyone who was getting their largess.

"I've heard stories about the heyday, in the old days, where one guy would pick up the check for the whole dang restaurant," he said.

Zephyr is new, but Sellers has worked in the business in Juneau for years.

The legislative business meetings were easy to spot, he said. They had serious people, with lots of paper spread out.

"They had one thing on their mind, to get an agreement," he said.

The short 30-day session meant many of those visiting Juneau stayed in hotels, bed and breakfasts or with friends.

Sellers said that contributed to the restaurant business.

"None of them have a place to stay where they can cook and eat at their house," he said.

The unexpected business helped out the downtown restaurants a lot, he said.

"That was a nice treat in an October or November," he said.

Hamilton said he expects the new attention to legislative ethics, and whatever its impact is on the restaurant business, is here to stay.

"It's not going to blow over," he said.

• Contact Pat Forgey at 523-2250 or patrick.forgey@juneauempire.com.

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