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Push for new Alaska capital leaves Juneau cold : Voters are being asked to abandon the isolated city in favor of the small town of Wasilla.

SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

Nestled at the foot of majestic mountains along Alaska’s famed inland waterway, Juneau was a great place to build a fishing community and tourist center. But as most Alaskans will tell you, it was a lousy place to build the capital.

Nonetheless, this is where the seat of government is, much to the consternation of many of the state’s half-million residents.

Accessible only by sea or air, Juneau is cut off from the major population centers of Anchorage and Fairbanks hundreds of miles to the north. So ever since Alaska became a state in 1959, there has been a move afoot to relocate the capital closer to Anchorage. Not too close, of course, or the people of Fairbanks will fight it, but that’s another part of this continuing saga.

And just when the people of Juneau thought they had beaten down the threat completely, it has risen from the dead.

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“I just think it’s an outrage that the majority of the population is not able to access the capital and become a part of the process,” said Democratic state Rep. Pat Carney, author of a November ballot initiative that would move the capital to the small farming town of Wasilla, about a 45-minute drive from Anchorage. Carney is from Wasilla.

Juneau Mayor Jamie Parsons says the issue “just kind of festers” year in and year out, and the latest effort is little more than an attempt by Carney to steal the capital despite dire economic consequences for Juneau.

“I don’t know why” Carney has brought the issue up again, Parsons said. “I guess it’s just greed.”

The effort to relocate the capital began in 1960, and voters rejected the issue. Two years later, it was defeated again.

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In 1974, voters decided to move the capital to a town that did not even exist. The site was Willow, a wide spot in the highway between Anchorage and Fairbanks. But in 1978, a ballot initiative requiring voter approval for funding was passed, and a $966-million bond issue was defeated. Another funding initiative for $2.8 billion was defeated in 1982.

But Carney resurrected the issue this year, and the new initiative is couched in terms that might make it more palatable to voters.

The initiative simply says that as of Jan. 1, 1997, the Alaska state capital will be in Wasilla. If it passes, Wasilla will be the capital, “whether we have any buildings or not,” Carney said.

The buildings, he said, can come later, and they will be built by local interests and rented to the state. Since the state now rents most of the offices it uses, Carney says, there will be no added cost.

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Juneau officials are outraged over that claim, noting that the projected cost of moving the capital more than a decade ago was in excess of $2 billion. Voters rejected it then, despite the fact that the state was awash with oil money. So it might seem reasonable to expect them to reject it now, when oil revenues are down and the state is facing a fiscal crisis.

Carney says costs should not be an issue. Once voters realize that he isn’t proposing building a new city, as was the case the last time, the measure will pass, he says.

But the state is divided. Nearly all of southeastern Alaska opposes the idea out of fear of losing jobs in the Juneau area. And Fairbanks, second in size only to Anchorage, also is largely opposed.

“Fairbanks and the interior of Alaska is extremely jealous of Anchorage’s size, and they are adamant against giving Anchorage any other reason to grow,” Carney said.

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The move could devastate Juneau, Parsons contends. Juneau has about 30,000 residents, 20,000 of whom are dependent on the capital being here for their livelihood.

Carney, who says he doesn’t buy those figures, concedes that the economic impact on Juneau could be substantial. But he doesn’t think that justifies keeping the capital here.

Juneau, he noted, is the only capital in the country that is not accessible by road. You can drive by putting your car on a ferry for part of the trip, but even then traveling from Anchorage to Juneau requires passing through a foreign country, Canada.

Meanwhile, Juneau residents are gearing up for a major battle. The last time, they spent nearly $1 million to fight the move.

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“To disrupt government and move the capital when there are so many other needs,” Parsons says, is a problem Juneau really doesn’t need. He says that for far less than it would cost to move the capital, a highway could be built out of Juneau.

And so the battle continues.


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