Fairbanks bumped from No. 2 population spot in Alaska

Sean Doogan

Quick quiz: Which of the following statements about Alaska's second-largest city are true?

A. It is nicknamed the "Golden Heart City."

B. It can get as cold as minus 66 degrees in the winter (and in the surrounding area, sometimes even colder; we're looking at you, North Pole).

C. It is the headquarters of the University of Alaska system.

D. Because of the city's northerly location and the almost constant sunlight during the summer, an annual baseball game there, which began more than 100 years ago, is held in the late night hours without the use of artificial lights.

Answer: None of the above.

While all are factual descriptions of Fairbanks, none of the statements above is true of the state's second-largest city. That's because Fairbanks is no longer the state's second-largest city. According to the most recent state population numbers, that designation now goes to Juneau, the state's capital and longtime No. 3 city.

Since 2000, declining oil production in Prudhoe Bay has combined with military draw-downs and high fuel prices to both slow Fairbanks' growth and thin the ranks of its residents. In years between the U.S. Census, held once a decade, the Alaska Department of Labor and Workforce Development uses Alaska Permanent Fund dividend application numbers, IRS data and community surveys to estimate population numbers.

In 2013, the department estimated that just 32,204 people lived in Fairbanks -- 860 fewer than those who call Juneau home.

But Fairbanks may still be able to lay claim to being the state's second-largest population center. Unlike Fairbanks, Juneau is a municipality, meaning that the city and borough governments -- and their respective land areas -- are combined. This makes Juneau one of the largest U.S. cities in area, with an estimated size of 3,255 square miles. That's more than 86 times the size of the official city limits of Fairbanks, which only encompass 32.7 square miles.

And people in Fairbanks, at least, understand that difference as the only reason the Golden Heart City no longer plays second fiddle to Anchorage, even if they say they don't care all that much about population rankings.

"It doesn't surprise me, since 80 percent of Fairbanks is outside the Fairbanks city limits," said Glen "Glenner" Anderson, a local radio host and comedian.

In fact, if you account for all the people living in the Fairbanks North Star Borough -- which is 7,444 square miles in size -- the area's population rises to 99,632 for 2013, making the borough the state's second-largest population center, well ahead of Juneau and about 3,000 people ahead of the Matanuska-Susitna Borough.

But even that hold on second place is a tenuous one at best.

"We do expect that to change because the Mat-Su has been growing steadily," said Eddie Hunsinger, lead demographer for the state of Alaska.

That 'small-town feel'

Fairbanks is a city on the edge. It sits at the beginning of the 500-mile-long Dalton Highway -- locally known as the haul road -- that winds its way north to Prudhoe Bay's oil fields. Fairbanks is also the northernmost major Alaska city you can visit by road. Its residents live nestled in the northern foothills of the massive Tanana Valley -- the state's central lowlands that stretch about 150 miles from the northern side of the Alaska Range to the White Mountains.

During June and July, Fairbanks weather is among the most spectacular anywhere, with temperatures soaring into the 90s, and the aforementioned near-constant daylight. And in a state that is known for its beauty, most would agree that a Fairbanks summer should wear the weather pageant tiara, at least when the mosquitoes aren't too bad and there aren't too many nearby forest fires choking the people who live there.

Go in any direction from Fairbanks and you will soon find yourself in the Bush -- an expanse of tundra, hills, and rivers without roads, with more moose and bears than people. And while Fairbanks, with about 100,000 people living in the area, is definitely a somewhere, the town has frequently been referred to as "the city on the edge of nowhere."

Its residents think of themselves as hardy and self-sufficient, and, in many cases, tougher than those who live their lives surrounded by the amenities and ease of big city living in Southcentral Alaska.

"Most people feel like we are the real Alaska," former Fairbanks mayor and current state Rep. Steve Thompson said.

Indeed, ask a Fairbanksan about Anchorage -- the state's largest city -- and you may soon hear, "The best thing about the place is that it is just 60 miles, in any direction, to Alaska." You know, that old chestnut.

Many local residents have lauded Fairbanks' standing as the state's second-largest town -- a big city but not one that is too large.

"Most of us pride ourselves on being able to keep our small-town feel," Anderson said. "That's something Anchorage has lost."

lukewarm reaction

Since the 1940s, Fairbanks has been able to lay claim to the title of Alaska's second-largest city. That's when, spurred on by an infusion of military supplies and people during World War II, both Fairbanks and Anchorage (which has been the most populous city in Alaska ever since) took their places atop lists of the state's most populous cities.

Fairbanks has always had an edge to its people and its attitudes. The town was founded in the early 1900s when E.T. Barnett convinced hundreds of men toiling in the dwindling gold fields of the Yukon that they would have better luck in a new and hastily built gathering of tents and small cabins along the Chena River. An Italian miner named Felix Pedro had just struck gold in the area, and Barnett -- who had built a general store there after the riverboat captain who was taking him upriver refused to go any farther -- exaggerated Pedro's find to start a mini-stampede of gold-crazed miners.

Even though some did strike it rich, most failed, and all had to look to Barnett for food and supplies in the dead of winter, sparking the beginnings of Fairbanks: a city that has lived a boom-and-bust life ever since.

The recent downgrade of its stature among Alaska population centers is just another example of Fairbanks' coming-and-going prosperity.

And Juneau isn't exactly crowing about its new position on the state's population rankings.

"That's quaint," Brian Holst, the executive director of the Juneau Economic Development Council, said when told about Juneau's new spot as the state's second most populous city.

Despite being underwhelmed at the news of its population ranking rise, some numbers matter to Juneau. Holst was quick to point out other metrics that Juneau residents cherish more than how many people live there -- including the fact that Juneau has the most visitors annually (1.2 million in 2013) and produces the most beer in Alaska.

"I think in our minds we are No. 1," Holst said.

Regardless of rankings, people in Fairbanks love their space, so a drop in the city's stature might not be the worst thing to ever happen to the town.

"I would like to be five or six, so people, stay the hell out," Anderson said.

Reach Sean Doogan at sean@alaskadispatch.com.