It's easy to walk into the Alaska State Fair through the Yellow Gate and miss the biggest addition to the fairgrounds this year. A few heads may turn toward the fish wheel near the pathway and several fairgoers will feel their appetites aroused by the aroma of grilling salmon. But the eight humble plywood cabins with little signage are likely to escape the attention of most visitors as they make a beeline for the giant, familiar livestock exhibits building, established booths and the carnival beyond.
That's expected to change by 2016, when the Gathering Place, a group of buildings and landscape features showcasing and celebrating Alaska Native art and tradition, takes its final form.
For the moment, however, the Gathering Place is very much a work in progress. On opening day there was a fairly steady crowd in front of the Fish On! Camp Grill but far fewer customers poking their heads into the cabins to look at Native crafts being sold within. With the sun beating down on Aug. 21, the cabins were swelter-boxes. When the rain and chill came on Sunday, some vendors plugged in space heaters.
On the other side of the double line of vendor cabins, opposite the grill, is a performance pavilion with a fabric roof and walls. Dancers dressed in the back of it, sitting on the grass. Singers crowded the microphone to be heard over the motocross event underway across the Yellow Trail and the sound of vehicles driving the access road on the other side of the area.
Growing pains aside, it marks an improvement over the past few years when Native vendors used a breezy tent near the Red Gate, said artist Jerry Lieb, who signs his work "Sivaluaq." He split his time between telling stories on the stage and working at his table in one of the cabins -- where the stories continued. Asked about one of his carvings, a miniature story knife, he quipped, "That's for short stories."
Sivaluaq, whose specialty is drums, is among the artists who will be at the Gathering Place throughout the fair. Others are there for as little as two or three days, said Gloria Yates, program coordinator.
"We have 40 artists here this year," she said. "There was a lot of interest because there's no charge this year." That's because it's the opening year, she said: "Next year there might be a minimum charge."
And there'll be a lot more to see. For one thing, the footprint of the site will be much bigger, as much as an acre, Yates speculated.
The room will be created by removing the current dirt access road that separates the main fairgrounds from the equestrian area and rodeo grounds.
"The service road is going to be gone," said Bill Allen, who is managing the project for the fair. "Across the road is a fence. That will be torn down. The large, green area going into the trees, that's where the permanent stage will be, near the trees, which should help with the wind.
The stage building will be 32 by 32 feet. The space will include a plaza with paver bricks or some similar material: "Anything but asphalt," Allen said. Permanent benches will be built into a hill to create an open amphitheater where Native Olympics sports demonstrations and similar events can take place. Eight more three-vendor cabins will be erected.
"There'll also be a multipurpose room," Allen said, "a museum kind of deal during the fair." But its main purpose would be as a site for workshops and classes.
The plan calls for a restroom building to be added during the third year of construction, along with an "art forest" depicting the various areas of the state. The service road will be rerouted to the south, around the rodeo grounds, and designated parking will be added so that vendors don't have to carry their products any farther than necessary.
"In year three, we'll wrap it up with some nice landscaping and permanent signage and have a very nice park," Allen said. He expects the site to be used not only for the 12 days of the fair but for several months out of the year. Among other things, he expects it to include space for camping and access to the grill.
"The big cost item is running utilities back there," he said, "power, water and sewer. It's all pretty spendy but I'm pretty sure we're going to get some support for that. Like everything else, it depends on money."
But so far things are looking good on the money front, he said: "We had a time trying to get this year's site ready for the opening but we did it. We got everything paid for and have a few bucks left to carry over to 2015 projects."
The critical question will be whether the vendors make a profit. On opening day, they showed a lot of jewelry, carvings, Eskimo yo-yos, prints, paintings and some exquisite woven grass baskets. Business seemed slow but crowds throughout the fair were small on that day. The big throngs wouldn't show up until Friday. But artists and craftspeople hoping to secure a table were evaluating the site, weighing the prospects, cornering Yates and getting their names on her list.
"This is sort of a trial year," Allen said. "We'll have to see how it fits."