Local news of 2002

Olympic torch, school construction, arson and elections make headlines

Posted: Tuesday, December 31, 2002

Juneau began the year watching the Olympic torch come and go and ended it knowing the Legislature would stay. In between, an ice rink went up, a high school renovation kicked up dust, politicians were elected and defeated, and a tourism plan was developed.

Here are some of the local news highlights of 2002:

• Flame of fame: The Olympic torch came to Juneau in January, the first time Alaska participated in the torch relay, which carries the flame from the former games site to the new one.

Fifty-one people, mostly Alaskans, carried the torch in Juneau in a three-hour procession before hundreds of people lining the streets in places, and about 3,000 people in Centennial Hall.

"I feel like a professional athlete," said Jerry John of Toksook Bay. "I feel like (basketball star Michael) Jordan."

• School daze: A $20 million renovation of Juneau-Douglas High School began this year, a project that sometimes left teachers and students dodging construction and studying to the sound of jackhammers. Students, many housed in the old Marie Drake Middle School next door, adjusted to crowded halls and no auditorium as parts of the old building were demolished and a new commons area with a vaulted ceiling rose above the old roof.

The decision to start the renovation before building a new high school in the Mendenhall Valley caused a rift between the School Board and Assembly. The proposed $50 million, 1,200-student high school at Dimond Park, approved by local voters in 1999 but stalled awaiting partial state reimbursement, may turn into a $50 million, 850-student school, or a $60 million, 1,050-student school.

School and city officials are still discussing what the school should look like and how much it should cost, now that the Legislature has passed a reimbursement bill. If the cost goes up, Juneau voters will get another crack at approving or rejecting city bonds.

• Tons of tourists: While the statewide tourism industry felt the impacts of post-Sept. 11 fears and a declining national economy, the number of cruise-ship visitors increased from 690,000 in 2001 to 720,000 this year.

Juneau officials completed a much-discussed tourism plan giving the city direction in marketing, reducing flightseeing noise and managing downtown congestion.

Meanwhile, work began on changes to the downtown waterfront in the area of Steamship Wharf and Marine Park. When completed, the $5 million project will deck over an open area between the existing dock and the sidewalk and more space will be available for bus loading.

• Far-reaching arson: A number of fires damaged and destroyed homes and commercial buildings in 2002. Probably the worst was a set fire at Juneau Self-Storage near Lemon Creek on June 2 that endangered firefighters and destroyed the building and property belonging to about 150 storage-unit renters.

No one was hurt in the blaze, but firefighters dodged exploding bullets and shrapnel from 3,000 rounds of ammunition and two propane cylinders stored in the building. Some renters lost nearly everything they owned.

Two men were indicted on charges of arson, burglary and theft from the fire and a separate break-in. Both pleaded out to lesser charges.

• NOAA can do: The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration discovered, as did city officials in other projects, that construction costs have gone up in a market competing for labor. The summer start for building the proposed $51 million, 69,000-square-foot National Marine Fisheries Service lab at Lena Point was delayed when bids came in at least $6 million high.

Federal officials said they are reviewing their options, including downsizing the project or upgrading the current lab at Auke Bay, although then-Sen. Frank Murkowski said he was told by Commerce Department officials that NOAA would build at Lena Point.

• No move, maybe a road: Voters in November rejected by a 2-1 margin a ballot initiative that would have moved legislative sessions from the capital city to Anchorage or the Mat-Su Borough.

Ballot Measure 2, backed by the Alaskan Independence Party, would have reduced property values and cost Juneau 380 jobs connected to the state Legislature, according to a study by the McDowell Group.

The campaign against the initiative helped resurrect calls for construction of a road up Lynn Canal connecting the capital city to the mainland road system.

This month, Gov. Frank Murkowski ordered the state Department of Transportation to resume the Juneau Access Project with the goal of drafting a document examining the environmental impacts of a road or other improved transportation links out of Juneau.

• Officials shuffle: The year saw the retirement of Rep. Bill Hudson, a Republican who represented the Mendenhall Valley in the state House for all but two years since 1986. Voters chose Republican Bruce Weyhrauch to replace him and re-elected incumbent Democrats Sen. Kim Elton and downtown Rep. Beth Kerttula.

Two Juneau Assembly incumbents were defeated in October's election. Juneau School Board member Stan Ridgeway beat Don Etheridge while Juneau Planning Commissioner Merrill Sanford defeated Frankie Pillifant. Marc Wheeler was the only incumbent to be re-elected.

At City Hall, City Manager Dave Palmer resigned after seven years on the job, saying he was ready for a break. Former Assembly member John MacKinnon was hired to fill in but ruled out as a finalist. The search for a replacement continues.

• Bears, wolves, beavers: Bears continued to battle locals for garbage in 2002, although some people cited new trash-storage regulations and bear-proof garbage cans as improvements in the situation. Meanwhile, a white-colored black bear, nicknamed "The Spirit Bear," won state protection after photographer Pat Costello publicized its existence and asked that it be saved.

Hunters and wildlife activists also debated wolves on Douglas Island, which ultimately won some state protection after seven were caught by a trapper. And beavers in the Dredge Lake area won an end-of-the-year reprieve from the new governor after the U.S. Forest Service announced plans to eliminate animals damming up popular trails near Back Loop Road.

• What weather: Winter ended later in 2002 and a cold spring hurt gardeners and reduced the wild berry crop. Summer was wet, though not without sunshine, and enough snow to ski came late.

As Eaglecrest Ski Area opened and sledders enjoyed the snow, skaters kept an eye on construction of the Treadwell Arena, a 26,000-square-foot, $3.5 million indoor ice rink under construction at Savikko Park. Skaters and hockey players organized in anticipation of an opening, once projected for this fall and now slated for sometime within the next two months.

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