Trust in your capital or no one else will

Posted: Friday, December 10, 2004

Brandon Loomis is city editor of the Juneau Empire.

I've always marveled at Juneau's self-esteem. To the rest of us growing up in other parts of Southeast Alaska, the capital's people seemed smitten with their own smarts, sophistication and reflection. It looked like just one more frontier town to the rest of us, and many considered Sitka a prettier date, but Juneau wasn't buying it. And it still isn't.

"Cheer up, Brandon. It's not your fault you're from Ketchikan." That's not a quote from 1982, when my baseball team was beating Juneau's with relish, but from this year, after I moved here and embraced the place.

Juneau is proud. And so it has been with puzzlement that I've watched the villagers skate around the edges of the capitol construction issue, too afraid to cross the center where the ice thins. Come on, Juneau. You're supposed to be the brash big brother of Southeast Alaska. Stand up for yourself. Plan and build a capitol with pride, not fear.

When Mayor Bruce Botelho campaigned on a platform including construction of a modern and worthy center for Alaskan government, people started whispering. Is he mad? Can't he let sleeping sled dogs lie? He'll doom us.

It's an understandable response - for wussies. Yes, since Anchorage grew into a metropolitan force there always have been those who want the seat of government closer to it. There always will be. So what do we do? We shrink and press for an amendment making it more expensive but not less likely to get initiatives like a capital move on the ballot. We talk about a road connection that will take decades to build if it can be built. We line up outside cramped conference rooms in a grand, stuffy old building that was never meant for this, because we're too afraid that talking dollars with the rest of the state will not only kill a new capitol but anger the beast and strip state government from us.

Say it with me, Juneau: One hundred million dollars.

It's a nice, round number; big enough to mean something important but reasonable enough that those who would start speaking up can make it make sense to Alaska. And it's a lot cheaper than moving the government.

The times call for vision and risk-taking, not retreat to delusions of safety. The surest way to lose a state capital is to act like you're not the state capital. In 20 years, the century-old territorial building now housing the Legislature will be even less suitable.

The mayor launched this effort with tact, presenting it in Anchorage and Fairbanks and asking help from Alaskans in envisioning a capitol to reflect their state and their brand of democracy. It was well-received by some. While newspaper endorsements can't be considered the voice of the people, neither are they often diametrically opposed to most of their readers, so it was nice to see both the Anchorage Daily News and the Fairbanks Daily News-Miner last month back the mayor's idea and argue for an end to the endless talk of moving the capital. They understand that building a capitol is not - cannot be - merely a back-door attempt to cling to the city's lifeblood for a few more decades, but must be a bold expression of the state's history and future, and therefore of Juneau's.

And then the dreaded talk began, as you knew it would. First The Voice of the Times editorial page railed against Juneau for being somehow too liberal to host the state government, as if state government employees and their educations and professions don't have everything to do with the city's politics - or the eventual politics of any other city that decides to seduce them away from us. Then a citizens' group from the Kenai Peninsula cropped up to lobby for a capital move just two years after the last time Alaska's voters said no, by a 2-to-1 margin.

Good then. It's on. Some have suggested putting the Legislature in a strip mall in Southcentral Alaska. Some suggest an abandoned fish plant in Anchorage. Ketchikan, I would add, still has space at the old pulp mill. But none of these are state capitols, and it will be hard for anyone to argue otherwise even in a state with a utilitarian architectural tradition.

Maybe some legislators will block the mayor's plan. Maybe then we'll have to use the ballot initiative ourselves and convince voters that they're getting something for their money. It's better than waiting for someone to convince them otherwise.

It's time to argue Juneau's virtues as a capital: a crossroads and mix of several of the state's traditional and newer economic forces; a balance of power in a state that has too few thriving economic centers; culturally diverse; historic; the existing capital.

These are the things that will keep state government in Juneau. If you don't believe in them, you should give it up.

• Brandon Loomis is city editor of the Juneau Empire and can be reached at brandon.loomis@juneauempire.com.



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