Cloudy skies failed to deter Alaskans and tourists from visiting Saturday’s Anchorage Market and Festival. With people buying up Alaska memorabilia and unique eats like salmon egg rolls, it’s difficult to find anyone in a sour mood. But trouble may be brewing beneath the faded, gray pavement of the parking lot that each summer for more than 20 years has been home to Alaska's largest open-air market. Board members of a local community development authority are in the process of deciding whether or not to keep the summer staple at its current location or move vendors up one block to Fourth Avenue.
The trading-spaces scenario is something that comes up once in a blue moon, but is nothing new, said market director Bill Webb. Nevertheless, controversy has ensued. Ron Pollock, the executive director of the Anchorage Community Development Authority, a group of nine members appointed by the mayor that facilitates development around Alaska’s largest city, has expressed an interest in moving the market.
Webb said during the authority’s last board meeting on July 11, Pollock told him that the market would be given no more than a one-year extension on its space because other development opportunities are being explored. Webb’s current seven-year agreement ends Sept. 30.
The market’s current home is the Lower Bowl Parking Lot at Third Avenue and E Street.
Pollock said Friday that the report of an ultimatum was inaccurate, and the board is simply “exploring its options.” No final decision has been made, he said, but one will come shortly. The directors' next meeting is set for Aug. 1.
“If I heard them incorrectly, I apologize. But what I heard (during the last meeting) is that we’re being given little choice,” Webb said. “This happens every now and again. And even though it’s been proven that the market does the city good, in terms of jobs and money, they want to shut us down.
“I wish the politicians would just leave us the hell alone.”
Webb says a move to Fourth Avenue, the only known alternate location, would effectively kill the market. A section of the street, a main artery of downtown Anchorage, would need to be closed off on Saturdays if the market made the move. The market also would be cut from two days, Saturday and Sunday, to just one.
Some vendors, which sell moose-oriented products ranging from sweatshirts and photographs to ulus made of antlers, are willing to make the move, Webb said. Others said this would be their last year if the yet undecided plan goes through.
A total of 300 booths are set up every weekend during Alaska’s short summer full of long days.
Rob and Candice Siciliano, of Siciliano Photography, operate one of those booths, and they are particularly concerned about the proposed shift in location.
It’s the couple’s eighth year operating at the market, and their main source of income -- they estimate 70 percent of their income comes from sales made during the weekend event. Rob used to work for the federal government, but he quit his job doing computer mapping and analysis -- “sitting in front of a computer in a cubicle, most of the time” -- to pursue photography full-time, his dream job, he said.
All three walls and tables hugging the couple’s booth are filled with snapshots of Alaska wildlife -- moose, brown bears, eagles -- and scenic backdrops from around the state and part of Canada. A handful of customers browsed the selection as Rob contemplated the future of the business if the market were to move.
Rob’s biggest fears about the move include space, time and atmosphere. He’s heard the largest booth on Fourth would be 10 feet by 10 feet, which would cut the number of photos he could hang by up to a third. The current space allows him to display his larger pieces, which draws more people, he said.
The prospect of operating only on Saturdays has the photographer concerned, too. The market would not open every weekend, so Rob figures the best-case scenario would give him about 40 percent of the time he’s currently getting.
And his last fear is the crowds. When it gets busy, customers tend to move on to a more relaxing spot at the market, he said.
“Everyone will lose, because what I’ve noticed down here is people move to a easier location to digest, whether it’s enjoying the entertainment, eating food or shopping,” Rob said. “It sometimes gets overwhelming. You’ll end up with frustrated vendors and frustrated storefronts, and people will just pass through.”
A stone’s throw away from Rob’s booth, Janette Geren operates Trading Post. She works wholesale and retail of Alaska trinkets, such as hand-stitched Christmas ornaments of deer and traditionally dressed Alaska Natives; door signs that read “Moose be love,” “Gone fishing” and “Welcome to the cabin,” and decks of "Alaska Outlaw" playing cards.
It’s Geren’s first year at the market; she generally operates out of her home. But she said the booth has contributed to about 40 percent of her business so far this summer.
Her main concern is operating under the shadow of the gift shops that line Fourth Avenue. The shops will be crammed together with a smaller number of booths, which would stifle business, she said.
She added she’d be willing to give the new locale a try, but ultimately, she doesn’t want the market to move, if only for the sake of other vendors who depend on the 18-week stretch as their main source of income.
Leroy Barlip III, who operates L&M Ivory at the market, said many of his custom-made knives are sold at the gift shops on Fourth Avenue. If people can buy them there, he supposes, there’d be no point to visit his booth sitting right next to the shops.
Barlip has had a booth at the market for 14 years, and it accounts for about 60 percent of his business, he said, though he dabbles in wholesale as well. If the development authority decides to move the market, it will be his last year, he said.
Vendors argued the event is not only for tourists. Anchorage residents visit the booths to eat lunch and buy the occasional knickknack while on their lunch breaks. The economic impact is reciprocal, as business owners often find themselves spending their earnings downtown, they said.
The market is also an excellent place for young entrepreneurs.
Remi Libbrecht played his saxophone Saturday to raise money for band camp. The Stellar Secondary School junior has been coming to the market for three years for this purpose.
One summer, Libbrecht raised $2,000. On a good day, he said, he can make anywhere from $100 to $50.
The people who generally stop and listen, talk and give money are locals. They’re willing to give a helping hand to a budding musician, he said.
Libbrecht, Barlip, Geren and the Sicilianos, these are the sorts of folks who would have nowhere to go if the market moved, Webb said. Numerous improvements, like electrical capacity, a stage and a permanent bathroom, have been made since he took over 14 years ago.
If the market moved, it would die, he said.
Contact Jerzy Shedlock at jerzy(at)alaskadispatch.com