From its humble beginnings as a collection of tents to the trendy restaurants that now dot every corner, Anchorage's core has a rich history of enduring and overcoming everything from earthquakes to pipeline booms. From the colorful days of the Alley Cat Bar to the present-day 5th Avenue Mall, downtown Anchorage has matured. But could it be much more? The answer is yes.
There's something special about downtown Anchorage. It's a place where independent merchants can thrive away from the suburban box stores. A gathering place for holiday events and summer festivals, downtown is a hub that more than a million tourists visit every year and more than 10,000 workers call their place of business. Downtown is a critical link to Anchorage's past and its future, and we need a better vision for that future.
Embedded in such a vision must be a commitment from public policy leaders to collaborate on solving the long-standing social problems that plague the area and effectively undermine the prospects for economic investment.
The first thing is a comprehensive solution for the problem of chronic inebriates in downtown. With most social services located east of A Street, any potential economic development in that area will rest on the city's ability to work with health and human service providers like Catholic Social Services, Bean's Cafe and the Alaska Mental Health Trust to reach solutions. One possible answer is a "health campus."
Imagine a coordinated effort to integrate detox, rehabilitation, education and job training in one location. Picture such a complex located away from the center of downtown, but which does more than just displace chronic inebriates by offering comprehensive treatment. This investment would not only reduce cost to local property taxpayers and a significant drain on police resources, it would strengthen the appeal of downtown to locals and visitors alike.
To put the social and economic costs of chronic inebriation into perspective, as a community we lose money every single day we fail to address this issue. The current costs are staggering. Life on the street for one person costs the city and social services about $60,000 annually. Prison would cost $44,000 a year. Residency in Karluk Manor is $21,275.
A comprehensive solution would contain costs, increase recovery and lessen the socio-economic impacts on service providers and taxpayers.
Another downtown challenge is overall public safety. The issues of crime have been well documented. They have spurred the Anchorage Downtown Partnership and others to work with public safety officials on areas of common concern.
The liquor lobby has long dominated the discussion of alcohol policy in Anchorage, protecting bad actors, while alcohol continues to play a major role in fueling criminal behavior. Problem bar owners downtown, who have been coddled long enough, need to be responsible for their patrons' behavior and the public safety costs they impose on all taxpayers.
On a parallel track, public policy makers should start to identify incentives to promote growth in the under-used, undervalued area of east downtown. A recent Black-Smith Bethard and Carlson LLC market study found pent-up demand for residential units in the central business district. The demand is being driven by young professionals and seniors, who want to live in buildings with dramatic views and easy access to downtown shopping, nightlife and other activities. The city has multiple ways it could use tax credits to improve the economics for investors interested in serving this market while broadening the tax base for Anchorage.
Great cities have great downtowns. Anchorage should be no exception. With a long-term vision for development and a commitment to addressing the socio-economic challenges that burden downtown, we can strengthen the heart of the city.
Let's grow downtown.
Andrew Halcro, an Anchorage businessman and former state representative, is president of the Anchorage Chamber of Commerce.