Chilkat Valley News - Serving Haines and Klukwan, Alaska since 1966

 
 

In 2013, projects belied forecast

 


For the first time since the rebuilt Haines School was oriented toward Old Haines Highway in 2007, students could make it to the school along a sidewalk.

The $975,000 project was one of several changing the face of downtown in the past year. Work also started on the $6 million Soboleff-McRae Veterans Village and the $6 million Port Chilkoot Dock reconstruction, and finished up on the $2.1 million Chilkoot Indian Association office.

Planning continued on the $19 million downtown harbor expansion.

The work, including leftovers from appropriations secured by former state Rep. Bill Thomas, R-Haines, made the town look busy, but belied a stark economic forecast that at year’s end included another anticipated round of cuts to federal spending and an anticipated drop in state oil revenues. “It’s no longer rosy financial talk,” state Rep. Jonathan Kreiss-Tomkins, D-Sitka, said midway through the legislative session.

Local projects also contrasted with warning signs that the town’s economy was stagnating. Sales tax revenues for 2012, reported in April, showed a 0 percent increase over 2011. An enrollment count of 271 students in October was the second drop in two years and compared to 305 students in fall of 2011.

In February, state demographers said the Haines Borough’s population increased 4.5 percent since 2010 to 2,620, but said they expected it to flatline. “We predict little change in the total population, but certainly a lot of aging,” said Eddy Hunsinger of the Alaska Department of Labor.

Once an economic engine, village Native corporation Klukwan, Inc ., closed its local office in December 2012. In February, corporation officials said they would sell off prime real estate at Jones Point and Portage Cove to emerge out of bankruptcy.

“This is not going to be a quick process,” said corporation president Rosemarie Hotch. “We’re working toward the goal of regrowth. We can’t do that until we become a corporation in good standing.”

Developers of a mine in Burwash Landing, Y.T ., dampened hopes that Haines might serve as a transshipment port for nearby Canadian mines. A company official said despite the town’s relative proximity to their project, an ore terminal in Skagway still made that city its preferred port.

But in the face of negative prognostications, some residents chose to be optimistic.

“I’m a believer,” said Klukwan Heritage Center director Lani Hotch, whose group started construction of its $6.3 million village arts and culture center in the spring, $2.8 million short of funding. Hotch trimmed about $1 million from her project, and outlined pursuit of smaller grants that would bring her within $600,000 of completion.

The project gained momentum in June when backers secured permission from the Ganaxteidi clan to display the storied Whale House artifacts in the new building for 15 years.

Public display of the pieces is contrary to the traditional use of such crest pieces, but backers of the project, including historians, said display would serve as a tribute to the tribe. Steve Henrikson, senior curator of collections at the Alaska State Museum, compared the pieces to the work of Michelangelo. “This material is a powerful force for good in the community. It has the power to change people’s lives,” Henrikson said.

Confidence in the town’s future also came from Aspen Hotels, which in August submitted an application to buy two lots on Main Street and Fifth Avenue for construction of a two-story, 50-room hotel. The borough planning commission recommended sale of the property, and at year’s end the statewide hotel chain was awaiting tests on contaminated soil from former school fuel tanks before pursuing the matter further.

In Fort Seward, residents Heather Shade and Sean Copeland finished restoration of a dilapidated bakery building and transformed it into Southeast Alaska’s first micro-distillery. Port Chilkoot Distillery started selling its first vodka in mid-October to positive reviews. The company plans to manufacture moonshine, gin, and whiskey, incorporating local ingredients.

Also at the Fort, residents Joanne Waterman and Phyllis Sage began restoring the Port Chilkoot Fire Hall, and the Port Chilkoot Company brightened the barracks building with a new coat of paint and painted plywood “windows.”

A Haines Borough effort to reorganize the downtown revitalization effort under the planning commission never got off the ground, but individuals and area organizations stepped up with improvements of their own. Lenise Henderson Fontenot rebuilt the facade of the historic Pryor Drug building, the Alaska Arts Confluence and 7 Echoes Homestead installed art in Main Street window displays, and Sheldon Museum staff told the history of the ferry system on panels of the shuttered Coliseum Theater building.

Some of the year’s most noticeable initiatives came in agriculture, where a new generation of commercial gardeners profited from nearly perfect growing weather, harvesting surpluses of produce that supplied stores, restaurants and the public market through the summer. Newcomer Spencer Douthit leased a section of Bob Henderson’s farm, launching a subscriber service, and nursery owner Jack Smith grew greens for commercial sale in March, saying escalating store prices were making his wood-heated greenhouse competitive. Mayor Stephanie Scott said the next step might be coordinating a number of growers to create greater efficiencies.

Scott presided over a year that saw turnover and tightened funding at the Haines Borough. Issues ranged from a hike in property assessments to the value of yurts and the smell of the sewer plant. “I don’t know where they came up with their numbers,” said Don Turner Jr ., whose eight-acre lot at Tanani Bay was initially assessed at 891 percent its value a year before. Some 420 appeals were filed.

In 2014, assembly members Steve Vick and Norm Smith stepped down, municipal manager Mark Earnest resigned after nearly four years on the job, and five-year police chief Gary Lowe left in the wake of complaints of abuse from officers and a dispatcher. Besides aggressive behavior toward employees, Lowe created a “hostile work environment” with sarcasm, demeaning comments and sexual innuendos, according to a written complaint.

The matter ended with a $53,000 payout to Lowe that raised questions about borough severance pay. It also revealed in February that Earnest hadn’t evaluated any department heads since starting on the job in February 2010. Remarkably, in a January evaluation, Earnest scored 2.5 of 5 possible points in the category of “effectively evaluates performance of employees” during his own evaluation. Earnest’s contract allowance for 48 days of paid leave also came under criticism.

Citing a $500,000 borough budget shortfall in April, Earnest proposed closing the pool and museum each for three months. Following discussions of whether to pay for coffee for employees and new chairs for themselves, the assembly approved its $12.2 million budget on a 4-2 vote. The chairs were funded, as was coffee, along with employee raises at an annual cost starting at $165,000.

Assembly members considered – but rejected – burying utility lines along Portage Cove, seeking an area closure on commercial harvest of Dungeness crabs, and establishing a card-lock system for marine fuel sales. They allowed residents to raise more chickens, prohibited motorized use at a popular Chilkat Inlet beach and adopted a $22 per car, biennial motor vehicle tax aimed at managing junked and abandoned vehicles. They also approved changing the municipal election ballot to a “roster” style of candidate listings.

Combined with last year’s reduction of financial reporting requirements, the ballot change was anticipated to encourage more citizens to seek office. That didn’t happen. Only one candidate filed for each of two seats on the assembly and four filed for three seats on the school board. “A lot of people whine, moan, scream and complain, and well, if you don’t like the system, participate,” said outgoing member Smith.

In the October election, voters endorsed a borough charter revision asserting that constitutional rights should apply only to individuals. The change was sought by the local We the People group as a check on corporate power. Although characterized by the borough’s attorney as largely symbolic, it was opposed by the Haines Chamber of Commerce and Chilkoot Indian Association.

Borough projects moved ahead in 2013 with finalization of the purchase of Picture Point in May and continuing work by a committee to conjure a redesigned public space at the town’s landmark scenic turnout.

Twelve test-drill results issued in March showed a soft sea floor at the downtown harbor, suggesting a rubble-mound construction design wouldn’t work. This week, after investigating a range of rubble configurations, the borough’s port and harbor committee conceded that a less desirable metal wave barrier was the more affordable alternative. “Personally, I think we’re done with rocks,” said member Bart Henderson.

Borough officials continued discussion of a borough “muniplex” that would combine borough functions. In July, an option that included fire and police departments, new borough offices and assembly chambers was priced as starting at $8.6 million. By the year’s end, focus had shifted to improvements to the public safety building, the facility identified by consultants as the municipality’s most antiquated.

Following encouraging results from a year’s experiment burning wood pellets at Haines Senior Center, the borough is considering replacing oil with pellets at three other facilities. Other borough efforts under consideration include a sauna at the swimming pool, a phone fee to pay for improved 911 service and a requirement for water meters with new residential construction.

The Haines Borough School District won some honors in 2013, but continued to lose students. Principal Cheryl Stickler was named 2013 Distinguished Principal for Alaska and district schools ranked high on the Alaska School Performance Index, a new ranking system that came when Alaska opted out of the federal No Child Left Behind program. Declining enrollment, however, cast a shadow on future staffing levels and programs and jeopardized the future of the elementary school at Mosquito Lake, where the number of students recently dropped to six.

The district added cameras and tightened security in the wake of Newtown, Conn ., shootings and wrestled with an anticipated $210,000 budget shortfall. The school board awarded teachers a 2 percent raise and an “excellent overall” evaluation for superintendent Michael Byer. A high school engineering class hung an electronic events marquee on the building, fueled by wind and solar power.

The year proved a busy one for Haines Borough police, not counting the drama surrounding chief Lowe’s departure. The killing of a pet dog and injuring of another with arrows in a downtown neighborhood in January outraged residents and attracted statewide publicity, but by July police abandoned their case against the shooter. The dogs apparently were on a neighbor’s property, chomping that family’s rabbits.

“We put a lot of resources into this case and we’re at a point where I have to decide whether or not to invest a bunch more resources in it,” said Haines Borough interim police chief Simon Ford.

In May, borough officers and state troopers literally chased down Stephen Ellenwood, a one-year resident wanted for the brutal rape and murder of 92-year-old woman in Utah 20 years ago. In a single night in June, 28 vehicles were burgled downtown. Although some of the missing items were retrieved, no charges were ever filed.

A thief nabbed 400 chocolate chip cookies from the Fort Seward Salmon Bake and skateboarders in traffic vexed police and motorists. Concerns about narcotics led police to search local mail and hold a “round-up” of unused, prescription drugs. In August, the force shrank to three officers.

Environmental issues of interest in 2014 included the effects on fisheries habitat of reconstruction of the Haines Highway through the Alaska Chilkat Bald Eagle Preserve and relaxation of regulations governing the state’s use herbicides along roads here. The National Marine Fisheries Service said the state’s road plan would cause “substantial and permanent” damage to fisheries habitat. Matt Boron, crew foremen for state roads around Haines, said he’d bow to fisheries concerns by not using herbicides near rivers, but allowed the possibility he might try them in limited quantities at the airport.

Community Waste Solutions added a bear-proof fence around its FAA Road landfill site and scored 93 percent on its annual inspection, an improvement from 47 percent in 2011. The company started offering single-stream recycling in February. The improvements fit with a pending company proposal to the borough for consolidated service with mandatory pick-up, said president Tom Hall.

A decrease of 30 percent in the price of chum salmon dropped the value of the local commercial gillnet fishery about the same amount, from last year’s decades-high harvest valuedof $15 million, to $9.28 million this year. “It’s maddening,” said Cynde Adams of Lynn Canal Gillnetters. “The roe market’s strong. There’s such a demand for salmon flesh. We’ve made a bunch of good markets. As far as everything I’ve read, there’s no reason the price should have been lower.”

Summer tourism business also dropped some, according to merchants and tour operators, following a late spring that included snow into May. Some independent tour operators who tapped into the Canadian market in recent years said they’re now using the Internet and brokers to try to supplement their business with savvy cruise ship visitors. “We’ve seen a fairly steady decline of independents in the past 10 years,” said Alison Jacobson, whose family has operated shuttle and tour boats here since 1991.

Alaska Power and Telephone president Robert Grimm said in January the proposed Connelly Lake hydroelectric project was “in trouble,” citing funding issues, permitting obstacles and local environmental opposition. The utility ruled out developing Schubee Lake as an alternative site in April, and pulled the plug on Connelly in June, abandoning a permitting effort. Difficulty securing state funding appears to have been the key factor in the utility’s decision.

Concerns about safety in the heli-ski industry resurfaced in March when a Southeast Alaska Backcountry Adventures guide died on a collapsed cornice. The parents of Nikolai Dodov, who also died heli-skiing in Haines in 2012, pushed for new safety regulations and “The Alaska Way,” a national documentary film critical of the industry, asked if “living the dream” was worth risking it all.

Some prominent positions in the community changed hands during the year. Kyle Gray became bank manager, Genevieve Bell took over as postmaster and Helen Alten was hired to head up the Sheldon Museum. Anneliese Stacy left Head Start after a 26-year career that included serving as cook, teacher, aide, bus driver, maintenance specialist and program director. Property tax clerk Sue Nelson ended a 35-year career at the borough. Nelson started when the local tax roll was written long-hand. “When people walk through the door of a government office, they have an issue… I like to think I was able to help people out,” she said.

Residents or former residents who died in 2013 included: Pat Sloan, Jolie Brewster, Lisa-Marie Long, Mary Ann Enright-Ebnet, Irene Nelson, Sue Meacock, Kathrine Jimmie, Bob Holmstrand, Rene Pisel Walker, Gene McNamara, Amanda Wilder Charles, Douglas Ellis Jr ., Frank Draeger, Delia “Dee” Mulkey, Juanita Martin Horton, Florence Holmes, Randy “Bear” Harrop, Robin Penwell, Jerry Potter, Woody Perry, Jay Kurz, Mickey Geary, Jack Hodnik, Dr. Patrick Smalley, Ben Fairall, Victoria “Viki” Parker, Marvin “Squeak” Smith, Maxine Rudd, Barbee Cook, Jonathan Ward, Lowell Knutson, Walter Porter, Fr. Jim Blaney and Brendan Larson.

Milestones in 2013 included a celebration at Port Chilkoot for the 50th anniversary of the state ferry system, held on board the refurbished Malaspina, which also turned 50. The Big Brothers Big Sisters program was revived, and AT&T customers finally got their “3G” cell phone service. Residents packed Bell’s Store for a close-out sale of vintage items, and friends and former students and co-workers turned out to toast Bob Henderson, 94, a hard-working former teacher, borough Mayor and hobby farmer.Hazel Englund, the town’s oldest lifelong resident, turned 97 with a party in the restaurant she waitressed at 80 years ago. “Work like hell and keep a garden” are the secrets to living a long life, she said.