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It happened in '04

The year was marked by political battles over the future of the city and state

Posted: Friday, December 31, 2004

Brian Wallace / Juneau Empire

Downtown fire: The 108-year-old commercial building at Front and Seward streets burns on Aug. 15. Roof work ignited the blaze that led to the buildings demolition.

Brian Wallace / Juneau Empire

Crippled ferry: The LeConte sits on a reef after it ran aground May 10 between Angoon and Sitka.

Michael Penn / Juneau Empire

Cooling off: Kathy Maca teaches her daughter, Leilani, 4, how to swim in Mendenhall Lake during Juneau's record summer.

Sen. Lisa Murkowski

Downtown fire: The 108-year-old commercial building at Front and Seward streets burns on Aug. 15. Roof work ignited the blaze that led to the building's demolition.

In a state capital that feasts on political wrangling, no one went hungry this year.

The book on 2004 in Juneau and Alaska is one about bitter debates and contested plans for the future, from a second high school to smoke-free bars to a new gold mine to the costliest election in state history.

Somewhere in there, Juneau residents had time to enjoy the sunshine with an other-worldly week-long streak of 80-degree days in late June, only to later recoil from the heat when a massive fire reshaped the face of the citys historic downtown.

And doz-ens of Southeast Alaskans were called to duty in the first foreign combat deployment of the Alaska Army National Guard since World War II. Seventy from the region, including 30 from Juneau, are among the 130 deployed to Iraq.

Alaskans were barraged more this year than ever with television, radio and newspaper ads and pesky phone calls from politicians trying to get elected. The wave of attack ads mainly came from the race between Republican incumbent U.S. Sen. Lisa Murkowski and former Democratic Gov. Tony Knowles.

The race was a bitter slugfest on both sides, with Knowles charging Murkowski with nepotism because of her appointment to the seat by her father, Gov. Frank Murkowski. Lisa Murkowski hammered Knowles for being Democrat, arguing that a vote for Knowles would help keep Alaskas Arctic National Wildlife Refuge closed to oil drilling.

Both candidates raised about $5 million, making it the most expensive political contest in Alaska history. With last-minute campaigning from her colleague U.S. Sen. Ted Stevens and congressional approval of $18 billion in federal loan guarantees for a natural gas pipeline, Murkowski beat Knowles by 9,349 votes out of 308,315 cast.

It was a wild ride in state politics in 2004, with high oil prices reversing the state budget from hundreds of millions in deficits to hundreds of millions in surpluses.

Gov. Frank Murkowski called a February meeting of 55 Alaskans in Fairbanks to discuss the fiscal future of the state and provide recommendations on whether to use earnings from the Alaska Permanent Fund to help pay for state government. The advisory panel recommended using part of the fund to cover the states chronic budget shortfalls, but the issue died in the Legislature.

Lawmakers called themselves back into special session in June and succeeded in passing a tobacco tax but still failed to take action on a long-range fiscal plan. Murkowski compared the session failure to a dead cat.

Theres a great deal of concern around here on how a session ends and where the dead cat lies, Murkowski said, wearing a homemade button with a cartoon drawing of a dead cat. But the dead cat to this session belongs on the not here.

The governor angered Juneau lawmakers in March with his decision to move some 40 highly paid state ferry system administrators from Juneau to his hometown of Ketchikan. Murkowski argued that it would create efficiency in the system and save money, but many were not convinced.

What this says is that state employees are pawns and were going to move you not based on what makes good sense, were going to move based on what makes good politics, said Sen. Kim Elton, D-Juneau, following the governors announcement.

The year began with ethics charges against Alaska GOP head Randy Ruedrich and ended with ethics charges against state Attorney General Gregg Renkes. Ruedrich admitted in June to conducting party business while serving on the Alaska Oil and Gas Conservation Commission and was fined $12,000 after an investigation by the state attorney generals office.

In early October, Gov. Murkowski hired former federal prosecutor Robert Bundy to investigate state Attorney General Renkes over a deal with Taiwan to develop the Beluga coal fields west of Anchorage. Renkes helped broker the deal while promoting KFx Inc., a Denver-based company that would develop the coal and with which Renkes owned $100,000 of stock. That investigation continues.

One of the most controversial and economically significant Juneau projects in years, with a projected payroll of 250, achieved a major milestone in the final days of 2004: The proposed Kensington gold mine plan of operation got a seal of approval from the U.S. Forest Service Dec. 23.

Kensington officials hope to start construction at the mine in March. But they still have to get many of their environmental permits to fill a sub-alpine lake with rock waste and operate docks and a ferry in Berners Bay. The Southeast Alaska Conservation Council has threatened to sue the Forest Service for approving the mine before the National Marine Fisheries Service completed its analysis of the effects on marine species.

Also in December, Gov. Murkowski announced he had received the first-ever fiscal proposal from major oil companies to build a $20 billion gas pipeline from the North Slope to the Lower 48. If built, the pipeline could bring hundreds of millions in royalties to Alaskas government but also generate significant financial risk.

On the same day, the Alaska Gasline Port Authority announced its own proposal for an all-Alaska gas pipeline from the North Slope to Valdez.

A last-minute campaign to stop construction of a second Juneau high school succeeded, but by fall voters were ready to approve a smaller version of the Mendenhall Valley school

A citizens initiative in May asked voters to reject a 1,200-student, $63 million school, which was on the verge of being bid for construction.

Opponents had a variety of reasons. Some didnt want two high schools in Juneau. Some thought the proposed school was too large or too expensive. Some feared that the number of specialized courses would decline as the faculty was split between two schools. Some didnt want to see varsity sports teams watered down.

Supporters of the Dimond Park school said Juneau-Douglas High School is overcrowded; smaller schools will be more personal and lead to higher achievement and a lower dropout rate. They said more students would be able to participate in afterschool activities

Instead, voters in October approved a smaller, less expensive school. It will hold about 840 students and cost about $54 million and is scheduled to open in the fall of 2008.

Juneau-Douglas High School was roiled by concerns about racism. The problem flared up after a student who is part Native held up an anti-Native sign in a school bus. It continued with a group of students of various ethnicities spray-painting an anti-Native set of initials on the schools exterior.

Juneau Mayor Bruce Botelho spearheaded a commission to build a new capitol on Telephone Hill. A design contest has attracted designers from all over the world. But the move also stirred the ire of those who want to try again to move the capital from Juneau. In its next session, the state Legislature may determine whether to sign a long-term lease with Juneau to pay for the $100 million project.

The Juneau Assembly settled the debate over smoking in public establishments, angering some smokers and bar owners with an all-out ban. The first phase takes effect Sunday, when restaurants with bars must post no-smoking signs. Standalone bars will follow in 2008.

In the October election, Randy Wanamaker was re-elected to the Assembly. Former Juneau School Board President Jeff Bush and Planning Commission Chair Johan Dybdahl were elected to the Assembly. Bush beat incumbent Jeannie Johnson by 52 votes.

The look of downtown Juneau changed on Aug. 15, when a fire began atop the 108-year-old building at Front and Seward streets. Roof work ignited the blaze that led to the buildings demolition.

The building had been a hardware store at one time, but in recent years the space had been divided. The fire displaced 17 businesses that occupied it.

Traveling Southeast Alaska became a logistical nightmare for some village residents after the state ferry LeConte ran hard aground May 10 between Angoon and Sitka. The 86 passengers and 23 crew members were rescued, but the vessel was lost for the season, and private shuttles stepped in to alleviate some of the travel backlog as other ships in the state fleet were too big to dock in some ports. The 235-foot LeConte left Ketchikans shipyard in October after $4 million in repairs to two 30- to 40-foot gashes.

The year in violent crime began when taxi driver Eric Drake was slashed in a robbery on the snowy night of Jan. 7. In February police arrested Aaron St. Clair Jr., 21, and his wife Violet St. Clair, 20. Both agreed to plead guilty in the case the husband to an attempted murder charge and the wife to conspiracy to commit robbery. Both are scheduled to be sentenced in January.

Attention in 2004 also focused on several violent deaths.

In September, a Sitka jury found Denni Starr of Angoon guilty of the July 2003 murder of Richard Buddy George in the home that they shared. A sentencing date is scheduled to be set in January.

State troopers arrested a Juneau man on first-degree murder and sexual assault charges more than a year after the crime angered residents of a Southeast island town. James Harmon, 26, is charged with killing Maggie Wigen at her Tenakee Springs home in the spring of 2003. Troopers arrested Harmon in May after he allegedly made statements to an undercover officer. His trial is set for March.

Juneaus arts year included 130 musical acts and countless jams at the 30th Annual Alaska Folk Festival. Opera to GO!/Juneau Symphony produced a collaboration of Maurice Ravels Lenfant et les Sortileges in April at the Juneau-Douglas High School auditorium. Perseverance Theatre started its year with its all-Tlingit interpretation of MacBeth, which it later toured throughout the state. New artistic director PJ Paparelli arrived in July. And though the theater announced that its long-planned renovations would be delayed, it made the grand step of opening up its second stage to a variety of smaller productions.

The business year was characterized by several small closures but the prospect for some big openings.

KayBee Toy and Hobby closed its Nugget Mall store among 375 it shut down nationwide, and national Ritz Camera closed in the mall in July. In November, Juneau lost its only Taco Bell store when the Mendenhall Valley fast food restaurant closed without warning.

But 2004 ended with people talking about what national retailers could do for or to the community.

Fred Meyer announced in November it plans to expand by 40 percent in 2006. The Home Depot began talking to the city in December about buying land near Costco in the Lemon Creek area to build a new building-supply store, and retail giant Wal-Mart confirmed that it had looked at the abandoned Lemon Creek Kmart building as a possible site for a new store.

The prospects of large national retailers riled some local business owners and residents, who questioned a chains commitment to the city and willingness to match existing businesses pay. Consumers and some business leaders extended a welcome to The Home Depot and Wal-Mart, saying competition and lower prices are overdue here.

And Juneau begins another year with a debate to chew on.



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