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

Thorgesen: 'I don't like 'For Sale' signs going up unchecked'


June 22, 2017

Chris Thorgesen has heard a lot about himself lately.

“I’ve heard I’ve got mafia ties, or that I’m a member of religious cult that’s taking over the town. People say they’ve seen me with a man wearing a top hat,” the local chiropractor and businessman said in an interview this week.

Thorgesen, who moved here from Salida, Colo., in October 2013, has become prominent by buying several downtown buildings and businesses, including Main Street’s Haisler Building and most recently, The Parts Place, a car parts store at Third Avenue and Willard Street.

That’s in addition to previous purchases and renovations, including Main Street’s Coliseum Theater building and Elks Lodge, and Mountain View Motel.

He operates a small construction company to work on his properties and recently helped finance purchase of a fishing charter business.

Two brothers-in-law who recently moved here in the past year bought the Zen Bathworks hot tub factory and Rusty Compass coffee shop, respectively.

Previous to Thorgesen, large, vacant commercial buildings on Main Street generated enough concern to be labeled “ghosts” by the Chilkat Valley News, which featured them in a 2014 series about downtown decay.

Thorgesen bought two of the buildings in apparent defiance of trends, including stagnant commercial property values and a statewide recession some expect will deepen as the State of Alaska confronts a $3 billion budget hole.

Does Thorgesen know something other investors don’t? Or is he buying on long-term speculation that the properties will pay off for some of his 10 children?

Neither, he said.

“Chris just has a buying problem. He can’t stop. I don’t like seeing ‘For sale’ signs going unchecked, especially on Main Street or Beach Road. I don’t like to see buildings empty or hear that people on cruise ships say there’s nothing here to see or do here,” Thorgesen said.

He said his purchases aren’t part of a grand plan. “To pay them off, I may flip them or refinance them or keep them… I do things as money comes in. I do incrementalism.”

He said one thing that worries him is the town’s vitriolic politics, which he said creates apprehension that drives people away. Through his chiropractic office in Skagway, he said he’s met people who left Haines because of its divisive politics.

Thorgesen said he’s not interested in making Haines “Disneyland or a religious compound.”

He’s making substantial improvements to the buildings he has bought. In the Haisler Building, he plans to restore 20 apartments, including replacing windows and fixtures, and fixing leaks. Interrupted during the interview for this story, he assured a tenant that a faulty window would be replaced.

“We want all the windows to look the same. If we’re going to pay for them, we might as well make them really look good,” he said.

Thorgesen is tiling an office restroom he gutted and is considering crowning the Haisler Building with a clock tower. Last year he commissioned an artist to create a giant mural around the town’s historic theater building. He was hoping to reopen it as a theater.

Haines bank manager Kyle Gray said he likes the idea of a Main Street clock tower. Thorgesen’s purchases are “more important than showing confidence” in the local economy, he said. “When any business owner is willing to invest in this town by adding value, by innovating, that’s inspiring.”

Gray said there’s always fear of the unknown and apprehension shown to new arrivals. “We should be encouraging of new people coming here and celebratory of their ideas. You can’t be constantly afraid of new ideas.”

In previous interviews, Thorgesen has pointed to Salida, Colo. as an example of a possible future for Haines.

This week he cited the economic reversal in his Colorado hometown. When the nearby Climax mine – one of the world’s largest for molybdenum – closed in 1995, as many as half the town’s jobs disappeared and property values dropped 50 percent. “You couldn’t give the stuff away,” he said.

The town reinvented itself as an arts, retirement and recreation hub, and property values rebounded and then some.

Lon Garrison Sr. lived in Salida from 1994 to 2013 and operated a farm supply store there.

Garrison said Salida’s “discovery” by artists and recreationists from as far away as California has pushed up real estate values. A newspaper reporter at the Mountain Mail this week said a house valued at $40,000 in 1991 now goes for $300,000.

“Had we got there 10 years sooner, we would have a pot of money. We could have had our home for 20 percent of what we paid,” Garrison said. Affordable housing is so hard to come by that a subdivision of “tiny houses” was approved a year ago.

But Garrison said there aren’t many full-time jobs, and the best are in government. “It’s one of those towns where it’s hard to make a living. If you want to make a living, you have to bring your own job,” Garrison said.

Salida has things going for it that Haines doesn’t. It’s close to a ski resort. The Arkansas River, one of the most heavily rafted rivers in the United States, passes through it. A four-hour drive from Denver, it sits in a weather shadow, relatively dry and warm for its location near 14,000-foot peaks.

Garrison remembers Thorgesen from Salida. “He was a highly respected chiropractor in Salida and Salida is a pretty small town. If you do a bad thing, everybody knows it.”

Arlene Shovald, a 37-year reporter for Salida’s Mountain Mail newspaper, said Thorgesen quickly built up a chiropractic business he bought there. She said she already misses him as chiropractor. “He has a really good family. He’s a good person. I think he can be trusted.”

Thorgesen’s brother-in-law Lee Robinson bought the Rusty Compass. He’s known Thorgesen more than 20 years and describes him as tireless, with contagious energy.

“There’s just no quit in him. When he has a vision for something, he goes after it. From high school as a state wrestling champion to his chiropractic business, he knows how to go after something. He learns well. He figures if someone can do something, he can, too.”

Robinson said his decision to move to Haines earlier this year was based on family. “The family ties are what we’re excited about. Having our kids have cousins to grow up around.”

Robinson worked most of his life as a school teacher but also spent four years as a real estate broker in Fort Collins, Colo.

As to whether his brother-in-law is making sound investments, Robinson said he doesn’t know the local real estate market well enough to pass judgment.

“From an investment standpoint, he’s making the kind of changes that are going to make those properties valuable again. He’s not doing something that’s earth-shattering. He’s just finding a way to do it. It hasn’t been easy or without its downsides, but it’s awesome,” Robinson said.


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