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Alaska Life

Anchorage couple buys house and turns it into a community rec center

  • Author: Suzanna Caldwell
  • Updated: November 12, 2016
  • Published November 11, 2016

The Anchorage Community House looks like a normal two-story home, both outside and in. There's a living room and a big kitchen, two bedrooms and a bathroom. It's tucked away in a quiet neighborhood off of Lake Otis Parkway.

But what owners Meg and Zach Zaletel hope to do with the space is straddle the line between house and community center.

They've used the house to hold everything from monthly "Friday Fling" pseudo-block parties to classes and make-ahead meal prep nights. Earlier this month it was home to both a Manhattan cocktail course and sourdough starter workshop.

There's a little something for everyone, including science experiments for kids and classes on how to garden.

The Zaletels have lived in Anchorage for the 11 years and bought the house directly across the street from them last October. At first, they figured they'd turn it into a rental or list it on Airbnb.

But Meg, who is an attorney, decided she wanted to do something more with the space. What if they could make it available for community activities and other events?

She said there are community houses in other cities, but not quite like theirs. Generally the "houses" are large mansions bequeathed to local communities. They are often used as venues for weddings and large parties.

"These exist. This thing I want to do, it's not too outlandish," Zaletel said in an interview last week. "Now how do we do it Anchorage? Can we do it in this small house? Well, why not try? What's the worst that can happen? That no one came? That no one thought it was interesting? Well then we can just be landlords."

But people have been coming. In the first year they hosted over 130 events for both adults and children. People can pay for annual memberships, $60 for individuals or $120 for a family, or pay for drop-in classes, which range from from free to about $30.

This summer they started a "tool library" where people can check out tools. It has over 180 items, including commercial vacuum sealers and chainsaws. In addition to classes like yoga, there have also been concrete countertop workshops and science, technology, engineering and math classes on making circuit boards.

The varied events calendar was partially born out of wanting to find group activities for their daughter, 5-year-old Zelda. Zach, a chemical engineer, likes to teach STEM classes. Many of the science-based classes are geared toward children.

Meg said in the last year over 500 people made their way through the house's arctic entryway.

The house itself has the amenities of any regular home: a cozy living room with a fireplace and big, open kitchen. There's a small, but growing library area with several bookcases full of books. An art room in the back is covered with a colorful mural and chalkboard walls.

The fact that it looks like a normal home "puts people at ease," Meg said during a tour last week.

Neighbors said the street can sometimes get crowded with parking, but that having the house on the street hasn't yet caused additional problems.

Jeff Frizzell has lived around the corner from the house for seven years with his wife, Julie. He said at first he had concerns about the house, and parking has been busier.

But other than that, he said, having the community house in the neighborhood has been positive. At each new class he meets someone new. He's been to a few events over the last several months and said each time he likes it "more and more."

"It's nice to see it bubbling," he said. "This could be something that's vital to our community."

Josh Nelson was a first-time visitor to the community house last Thursday, when a small group got together to learn how to make Manhattans.

He loved the class, he said, particularly because it was easy to talk to people and things were relaxed. But he was still trying to get his head around the idea of the community house.

"It's a good idea, but it's such a new concept," he said. "What happens when it gets really big?"

The Zaletels aren't sure at this point. The for-profit endeavor didn't quite break even last year, according to an annual report provided by the Zaletels. Most revenue came from rentals during the summer.

Growth is planned for the future, including making sure the house is accessible to people outside of the neighborhood who use public transportation.

If anything, they hope to see the model replicated in other parts of town.

"That's the experiment — what does a community center look like in Anchorage?" she said.

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