Alaska legislators are considering spending millions of dollars in state money to create a tourist attraction on the Las Vegas strip.
The idea is being pushed by semiretired Anchorage furrier Perry Green, a poker player of national repute. His pitch is to create the "Alaska Adventure Center," a Las Vegas showcase meant to promote tourism in Alaska. There would be live shows, a restaurant, retail stores and places to plan a vacation to Alaska. No gambling.
Green enjoyed a warm reception when he presented the plan last week to the Special Committee on Economic Development, Trade and Tourism in the state House. None of the members of the committee spoke out in opposition to the concept.
"We're interested in the project," the committee chairman, Bethel Democratic Rep. Bob Herron, told Green.
"In life there's no guarantees, especially in the Legislature there's no guarantees. But, as chair of this committee, we will work with you on this project. It may be several weeks, it may be several months. But I'll make that personal commitment that we try," Herron said.
Green is asking for the state this year to provide an initial $4 million to get the project designed and all ready to go, including figuring out costs of acquiring the land and building the facility. Then he would come back to the Legislature next year, present the plan for approval, and ask for the money to make it happen.
Legislators have talked about reducing spending and the House moved to cut state money for tourism marketing. But Green's proposal has influential backers.
Anchorage Mayor Dan Sullivan wrote a letter to leaders of the Legislature asking them to consider funding the project "as it could provide a boost to Alaska's tourism and thus enhance our state's economic development."
"Even though the project may require an initial investment from the state to fund the first phase, I am encouraged by the plan for the Center to be operated by an Alaska not-for-profit corporation with no public funds needed to support the facility's ongoing operations," Sullivan wrote.
Eagle River Rep. Bill Stoltze, who takes the lead in doling out construction money in the House, didn't return a message seeking his view on funding it.
So what does the governor think?
"He hasn't taken a position on this," Gov. Sean Parnell's spokeswoman said.
31 MILLION VISITORS
Green is prominent in Alaska business and political circles and plenty familiar with Las Vegas. He once finished runner-up in the main event at the World Series of Poker. He's lobbied in the past to legalize casino gambling in Alaska.
Green's pitch is that the Las Vegas strip, with 31 million visitors a year, is the perfect place to attract Alaska visitors. It has the right demographics for Alaska travel including older people with disposable income, convention planners, and foreign tourists who spend more on vacation than Americans, he said. The building would entice them with a microcosm of Alaska, according to Green.
Green is eyeing a piece of prime real estate on the strip, He told legislators now is the time make it happen because real estate values in Las Vegas are down.
He said the board of directors for the project includes Alaska Airlines Senior Vice President Bill Mackay, Anchorage businessman Carl Brady and Bob Malone, former head of Alyeska Pipeline Service Co. and BP America. Bob Coe, who has done international tourism promotion and used to run the duty-free operations at the Anchorage airport, is developing the project from California.
Coe's message to the economic development committee in the Alaska House of Representatives was that tourism in Alaska needs help. "I can conclude we're in trouble and we need a strategy, an aggressive strategy," he said.
LARGE AND LOUD
He said the Alaska showcase would need to be large and loud to compete with the rest of the Las Vegas strip. The idea is for a 300-seat theater that would have a free "flight-seeing movie" playing every hour. There would also be two nightly live shows, maybe about the 1890's Gold Rush in Alaska, Coe said.
There could be stores selling items such as Alaska gold nuggets, furs, art and Native handicrafts. A restaurant on the site could feature Alaska seafood, he said.
Coe described having six "Alaska Vacation Planning Zones," that would each have a category like wilderness adventures, history and culture or hospitality and business. They would include sales teams selling vacation packages.
Coe is thinking the building might be 40,000 to 50,000 square feet. That is the type of detail the feasibility study would sort out, he said, along with the costs of property leasing and construction, as well as what exactly should be in the building. He told lawmakers he'd bring the results of the study to them.
"We'd come back and present to you and say, 'OK, we recommend a 50,000 square foot building, we recommend this location, we can lease the location for $2 million a year, it's going to cost $30 million to build it or whatever,' " he said.
"This kind of thing, it can't be done on the cheap. If it's going to work, you've got to go in guns blazing," Coe said.
Coe said the state has to take the lead in funding. But the business plan is to get the tourism interests as well as local convention and visitors bureaus involved as sponsors or to pay marketing fees in return for their exposure in the facility, he said. No representatives of Alaska tourism organizations joined Green's group in front of the legislative committee last week, and they haven't publicly expressed a position on his idea.
Green said he and his friends have developed the project on their own up to this point because they want to bring more tourists to Alaska. Green said his own family's fur business depends on the promotion of tourism and he sees a statewide need for more jobs, taxes and development, particularly in rural Alaska.
He compared his idea to the buildings constructed to showcase foreign nations at Disney's Epcot Center in Florida or at the 2010 World Expo in Shanghai, China. "It's a puzzle and if we get all the pieces of the puzzle in place the building will be wildly successful. It will sustain itself once it's funded," Green said.
By SEAN COCKERHAM