Downtown's popular weekend market is getting a reprieve and can stay with the same operator at its longtime home next summer, the Anchorage Community Development Authority board decided Thursday evening.
But after that, there's no guarantees for the future of the Anchorage Market and Festival and the 240 or so vendors who try to carve out at least a side living there by selling a smorgasbord of treats, art and quirky trinkets: smoked salmon and fresh fudge, zipper pulls and ulu knives, Alaska T-shirts and art from repurposed house paint.
For more than 20 years, the market has taken over a valuable city parking lot at Third Avenue and E Street, at first on Saturdays only and now both weekend days.
Bill Webb, through his company Webb Consulting and Management Services, has been running the market since 1999. His current five-year lease for the parking lot is on its second, one-year extension and ends Sept. 30.
After hearing sometimes emotional testimony from a small crowd that packed the meeting room, the board agreed to negotiate with Webb to run the market another year. During that time, the authority will examine its options, including putting out a new request for proposals for the parking lot, the board agreed.
Hundreds of thousands of people visit the market every year, Webb says.
He told the board that over the course of a summer, half of Anchorage residents will have stopped by at least once, along with an estimated 60 percent of tourists. Many also then shop in other businesses, he said.
"It's an institution," Webb said.
First-time vendor Lynn Clarke, whose Alaska Black Cod business sells smoked sablefish and smoked salmon, told the board that the sellers promote downtown Anchorage to tourists. They put money back into the community. The city already has a number of farmer's markets.
"Here is your takeaway. The Anchorage Market and Festival is thriving for this community. Why move it," she said.
But as people spoke, others were turned away from the conference room at the development authority office on Fifth Avenue. It could hold only 50 people under fire marshal orders, authority spokeswoman Melinda Gant said. Dozens couldn't get in. A security guard threatened to call police on a few who stayed waiting for a seat to open up, one man told the board.
A number of market vendors said they depend on the well-run setup and say it needs to stay put. But some downtown business owners, including furrier Perry Green, Alaska Mint owner Mike Robuck, and shoe repair man Richard "Ziggy" Zeigler, said the market draws away their customers and would better serve the community if moved to Fourth Avenue.
Board members said they weren't pushing a move to Fourth Avenue -- that idea is bubbling up from the businesses. The Community Development Authority wouldn't even be involved in a Fourth Avenue street market, board members said.
Still, last month, the board asked the Anchorage Downtown Partnership to survey businesses on Fourth and Fifth avenues about their wishes. Chris Schutte, partnership executive director, said of the 45 businesses surveyed, 33 supported a weekend summer market on Fourth Avenue and side streets. Asked whether they would rather keep the current market or have no market at all, they were split almost evenly.
If the community wants the market at Fourth Avenue, the partnership, which already puts on 198 events a year including 21 that are "block party style," has the experience, Schutte said. But there are probably not enough vendors for two downtown markets, he said.
The board didn't want to rush into another multi-year lease without evaluating whether that would be best for the parking lot, Ted Carlson, the board chairman and a former Anchorage Assembly member, explained during a break in Thursday's meeting.
When it all began, the old, often reviled Anchorage Parking Authority was looking for a way to bolster its image and put to use a lower bowl parking lot that didn't see much weekend demand, said Dave Harbour, who was director of the authority when it launched the market.
The dual-headed Community Development Authority now manages parking meters, parking garages and city parking lots downtown -- and also is charged with investing in and prodding along economic development projects.
But now the parking lot may be needed for, well, parking, Carlson said. He said there's no proposal to use it for something else.
Parking has become a problem on weekends, downtown businesses complain. The market not only takes over the big lower bowl lot, but it also draws customers who take up many street spots, which are free on the weekend, Carlson said. That leaves little parking for hotels and permanent downtown businesses. One option might be to charge for meters on weekends, he said.
If and when the city's long-dreamed of plan to develop the Ship Creek waterfront materializes, the market will move to that spot, Carlson said.
"There is a plan, an initiative, in the Ship Creek development area, for a market. And that's going to be year round. So eventually it's going to move, when they develop Ship Creek," Carlson said. That makes it hard for the authority to know how long of a lease it should sign at the current spot, he said.
The Community Development Authority's mayor-appointed board includes, besides Carlson, two top city officials, a lawyer, real estate interests, and, as non-voting members, current Assembly Chairman Ernie Hall and member Chris Birch.
Hall said the board never considered not having a weekend market.
"I don't think anybody wants to shut down the market," board member Mark Mills, an attorney, said. "The market is a great thing for Anchorage. There are questions, though, legitimate ones as to whether it's the best use of that property."
Reach Lisa Demer at firstname.lastname@example.org or 257-4390.
By LISA DEMER