Aesthetics, cost hurt downtown's appeal
Second in a series of articles examining the emptying of the town’s core. Upcoming stories will include government’s role in revitalization and renewal efforts that worked in other communities.
Commercial business owners in Haines say high prices and unattractive, substandard buildings on Main Street have led them to invest elsewhere in town, including at Dalton City and Fort Seward.
High asking prices for vacant lots also is keeping owners of existing businesses from relocating downtown, including Haines Brewing Company, which has been looking to expand from its Dalton City location for at least 10 years.
Haines Brewing owners Paul Wheeler and Jeanne Kitayama moved into their Dalton City location in 1999.
The brewery sells all the beer it produces, so expanding production is a goal, Kitayama said. “We have the demand, but don’t have the capacity to supply that demand,” she said.
The couple also is looking to expand their tasting area following a change in state law that allows them to sell a few pints to customers on site. Patrons now must squeeze into a 50-square-foot corral, which puts four or five people a little too close for comfort.
Wheeler and Kitayama have been looking downtown, both at vacant lots and existing buildings. Lot owners have been reluctant to let go of their land, though, and available buildings would need complete overhauls.
“There aren’t any places that are attractive to us that would meet our needs,” Kitayama said. “Prices were too high considering that we would have to totally renovate those buildings if we could use them at all, because the brewery requires height for the tanks, concrete floors, cooler space.”
The couple looked at Main Street’s Ellingen Building but decided the structure wouldn’t work. The old Coliseum Theater and L.A.B. Flying Service buildings were out of the question, as they are either assessed at or for sale for nearly a half-million dollars, Kitayama said.
Fellow Dalton City business owner Steve Anderson of the Klondike also said he considered the Ellingen Building when he was looking to open his restaurant five years ago. Nightmarish heating costs and an unworkable building quickly halted that idea. “It was just like, there’s nothing there. You’d have to do construction. Whereas the Klondike was kind of set up where I could work with it,” Anderson said.
Also, none of the vacant building owners are open to renting, Anderson said. “Downtown people are going to want a lot of money for rent and then those people don’t even want to rent in the first place,” he said.
While Anderson said he is fine where he is, the brewery has been looking to relocate to Fort Seward, as Dalton City is “out of sight, out of mind,” Kitayama said. “We’ve asked different people in the Soap Suds (Alley) area. They weren’t ready to sell or we didn’t come to an agreement on price,” she said.
Kitayama said while downtown has grocery stores and a hardware store and other attractants, the fort has become more of a gathering place for tourists because of its unique look and proximity to the cruise ship dock.
“The fort is aesthetically pleasing, and it’s a nice community of businesses over there,” Kitayama said.
Plus, rents at the fort appear to be lower than downtown. Sockeye Cycle owner Thom Ely moved his business from its location downtown behind Haisler’s Hardware to Portage Drive in 1992 after downtown rent started escalating. Now, Ely pays $435 in rent for a 1,000-square-foot building.
“I think everything downtown is overpriced and the downtown area was never planned properly from the beginning,” Ely said. “There’s an old joke about downtown Haines that they should just level the whole thing and start over.”
Rents in Dalton City are also low, and have been since its transition from a tourist attraction to a business district in the mid-1990s. Former fair director Pam Coulter said the organization started renting out spaces in Dalton City to increase fair income.
“It was part of the discussion that maybe (the businesses) would outgrow the space there and then want to be downtown,” Coulter said.
Instead of a small-business incubator, though, Dalton City has turned more into a low-rent district. Current fair director Jessica Edwards said the fair rents out 14 spaces at Dalton City, with rents calculated at 50 cents a square foot.
There’s enough interest in renting at Dalton City that there’s currently a waiting list, including veterinarian Michelle Oakley and the Great Bear Foundation.
Asked to guess why Dalton City space is attractive, Edwards pointed to price and aesthetics. “They like Dalton City. And the spaces are small. A lot of people on the list are artists or people who want a one-person office and they don’t need a ton of space.”
“It looks like an Old West town and people like that,” Edwards added.
While Dalton City has a faux-historic appeal to it, the actual history and atmosphere of Fort Seward is partially what led Port Chilkoot Distillery owners Heather Shade and Sean Copeland to locate their business there, though they also looked downtown and were deterred by the prices and condition of the structures.
Two years ago, Copeland and Shade bought a ramshackle shell of a building on Blacksmith Street in Fort Seward. The building, constructed in 1904, formerly housed a bakery and sausage factory.
Still, it was cheaper for the couple to buy the 1,400-square-foot building for $55,000 and redo almost everything than to invest in one of the vacant Main Street structures.
“For us, we were able to get this cheap building and gut it and put in new windows and insulate it and get it up to modern specs, but we were starting out with a building that cost less than $100,000. If we go downtown, we spend half a million dollars and need to renovate and put in new windows and insulation,” Copeland said.
Though the vacant buildings downtown are newer, they’re huge and would require a fortune to heat, Copeland said. And frankly, they’re not that architecturally interesting, he said.
Also, the fort location is frequented more than downtown, Copeland said. “We’re closer to the cruise ship dock, so people are only going to fan out from there. The closer you are to the dock, the more people you are going to get,” he said.
If the distillery expands, the couple will likely just buy a piece of land and construct a new structure from scratch instead of shelling out for one of the overpriced vacant buildings downtown, Copeland said.
The reasoning and motives of the vacant building owners is something that puzzles Copeland, who acknowledges the owners are smart people who understand business and cash flow. “Why don’t they just let them go for what they put into them, move on, and do something more productive than stalling out the town and holding out for something that’s not going to happen?”
Resident Gershon Cohen said he looked at the former Coliseum Theater building for his future son-in-law’s business, Seibukan Jujutsu.
Chorus Bishop currently runs the martial arts studio in the Chilkat Center. Bishop said at one point he was looking at relocating to the Coliseum Theater. “It would’ve made a great building for a martial arts studio because of the large windows facing onto Main Street through which passerby could look in at my martial arts classes,” he said.
Cohen, who was helping Bishop, called the Gross family to inquire about the building. “I think the building could probably be fine, but we were never able to get into a conversation with them to try to negotiate anything,” Cohen said. “I called them up and told them I was interested and they never called me back.”
Dorain Gross of Juneau this week said she didn’t remember the conversation. She said there have been some grandiose ideas for the building but her family is not interested in leasing or renting. “If you’re calling to buy the building, we’ll talk.”