Alaska Dreams of a New Capitol, But Where?

By: - January 21, 2005 12:00 am

An effort to build a new Capitol in time for the 50th anniversary of Alaska’s statehood has re-ignited debate over Juneau’s suitability as the seat of government.

This month, a design jury assembled by the City and Borough of Juneau chose four architectural teams as finalists in an international competition to build the first state capitol of the 21st century. It would replace the cramped, six-story U-shaped building that now serves as Alaska’s Statehouse.

But that touched off a move to undermine the million project by legislators who would like to move the capital out of Juneau. This Alaska panhandle town of 31,000 is the only state capital not accessible by road to any other communities.

“I think it opened Pandora’s box,” said Sen. Ralph Seekins, R-Fairbanks.

Almost as soon as Alaska became a state on Jan. 3, 1959, there was intense debate about whether Juneau should remain its capital.

The next year saw the first of several election ballot measures intended to move the capital. One such measure passed in 1974 but was later repealed when voters decided against paying for the move.

As recently as 2002, there was a ballot measure that intended to move legislative sessions either to Anchorage, by far the state’s largest city, or just north to the Matanuska-Susitna Borough, the fastest-growing area in the state. It failed, largely because of disputes about its costs.

Juneau became the capital during the state’s territorial days when it was an active gold mining town. But the construction of the Alaska Highway during World War II laid the groundwork for a major change in the dispersion of the state’s population. Construction of the Trans-Alaska Pipeline in the 1970s created another boom, one that helped Anchorage and Fairbanks more than Juneau.

To catch a ferry to isolated Juneau, residents of Alaska’s Interior have to drive several hundred miles, passing through the Yukon Territory and British Columbia before re-entering Alaska on either the Haines or Klondike highways.

And while air navigation systems at the Juneau Airport have improved, the frequently cloudy and windy weather on the runway approach between mountains requires flights to be diverted on a semi-regular basis.

“If you fly here, you might not make it. You might end up in Sitka or Seattle,” Seekins said.

Meanwhile, the Capitol itself is seen as problematic. The 1931 structure, built by the U.S. government to house federal offices and those of the territorial capital, doesn’t meet local fire codes and is out of compliance with the Americans with Disabilities Act. Gallery space in the House and Senate chambers accommodates just a few dozen people, and pillars obstruct the public’s sight lines. Most committee rooms are cramped, with legislators, staff, media and the public sitting within just a few feet of each other.

The building, granted to Alaska upon statehood, doesn’t have the traditional rotunda or dome and has no public cafeteria. There is no public parking, so visitors are forced to look for scarce on-street spots.

Juneau Mayor Bruce Botelho launched the Capitol Planning Commission soon after being elected in 2003. He hopes to have the new building constructed on publicly owned land three blocks downhill from the current Statehouse. It would be 170,000 square feet, nearly double the current size.

Botelho acknowledges that his hope is to end the capital move debate, and he says he was prepared for the backlash.

“I think people recognize that the construction of a new Capitol lends a degree of permanence to the seat of government that makes this a rallying cry,” Botelho said. “We’re on a course, and we recognize that there are going to be some land mines or icebergs in the way, as it were, and we’re going to have to do our best to chart around them.”

Actual designs from the four architectural finalists are due Feb. 16. An announcement of the winner is scheduled for March 2.

At that point, Botelho hopes for legislation under which the state would agree to lease the new Capitol. Lease payments of million annually would be used to retire bonds issued by the municipality.

“I think the key to its success is the role of the governor,” Botelho said.

Gov. Frank Murkowski, a former state commissioner of economic development, campaigned on keeping Juneau as the capital. And in the past he has voiced support for a new Statehouse. Last spring, he emphasized his support for that idea as a defense against Juneau residents who were angry about his administrative order transferring the headquarters of the state ferry system from Juneau to Ketchikan.

But Murkowski did not include the new Capitol in his proposed budget for fiscal 2006. According to his spokesman, the governor believes it’s incumbent upon Juneau residents to make the case to the rest of the state.

While Murkowski might appear to be backing off of the new Capitol, “I have every reason to believe he’ll be there at the appropriate time,” Botelho said.

“I think if Frank really wants it, the Legislature will do it,” said Sen. Kim Elton, D-Juneau.

Meanwhile, anti-Juneau legislators are getting into the mix.

House Rules Chairman Norm Rokeberg, R-Anchorage, has reintroduced a bill that would create a statewide competition among communities that want the capital.

“I believe my legislation is the only way we can break the stalemate politically so that we can have a new capitol or legislative hall,” Rokeberg said. The bill calls for a decision by June 30, 2006.

Reps. Bill Stoltze, R-Chugiak, and Carl Gatto, R-Palmer, are simply trying to stop the Juneau project. They’ve introduced a bill that, ironically, would use a tool that has helped secure the capital in Juneau in the past.

A successful 1994 ballot measure called the FRANK initiative for Fiscally Responsible Alaskans Needing Knowledge requires that the cost of a capital or legislative move be approved by voters. Stoltze and Gatto would extend that to the construction of a new Capitol in Juneau.

Botelho counters that it would be unprecedented to submit a proposed construction project to a statewide vote.

Retention of the capital is more than a prestige issue for Juneau. About one in four jobs here are in state government. And locals fear that with a capital move, federal agencies with offices in Juneau also would relocate. Elton says the losses in jobs, ferry service, health care delivery and real estate values would be “devastating,” not just for Juneau, but for the whole panhandle, of which Juneau is the hub.

Gatto says the effect on Juneau of losing the capital would not be as dire as locals predict. “It would not be cataclysmic. All that would evolve over a long period of time.”

One Anchorage legislator hopes that a new Capitol will be built in Juneau, securing its status as the capital.

“You can kind of see Alaska from here,” said Rep. Eric Croft, D-Anchorage. If the Legislature met in Anchorage, the Anchorage delegation rarely would see anything else, he said.

Bill McAllister has covered Alaska politics for a variety of broadcast and print outlets and is president of the Alaska Capital Correspondents Association. He can be reached at [email protected]

Our stories may be republished online or in print under Creative Commons license CC BY-NC-ND 4.0. We ask that you edit only for style or to shorten, provide proper attribution and link to our web site. Please see our republishing guidelines for use of photos and graphics.